New flu virus strain with 'pandemic potential' found in pigs in China

30 June 2020, 01:14

A new flu virus with the potential to infect humans has been identified in China
A new flu virus with the potential to infect humans has been identified in China. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

A new strain of flu virus that has the potential to become a pandemic has been identified in pigs in China.

Scientists in China are monitoring the disease over fears it could be spread between humans and cause another global outbreak, as the world continues to tackle the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Researchers worry it could mutate further and, though they say it is not currently an immediate concern, they believe it has "all the hallmarks" of being highly adapted to infect people.

The new influenza strain, G4 EA H1N1, is carried by pigs but can cause respiratory illnesses in humans similar to those seen with Swine flu - the last strain of influenza to become a pandemic.

Writing in a research paper called Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Chinese scientists say the virus lives and multiplies in the cells that line the human airway.

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Though it has not posed a significant threat so far, Professor Kin-Chow Chang, of Nottingham University in the UK, said the strain needed to be closely monitored.

The professor told the BBC: "Right now we are distracted with coronavirus and rightly so. But we must not lose sight of potentially dangerous new viruses."

Speaking about the new strain of influenza, he added: "We should not ignore it."

The researchers stressed for "urgent" monitoring of pigs and people who come into contact with the new virus.

The paper said: "G4 viruses [which this virus is one of] have all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus. Of concern is that swine workers show elevated seroprevalence [the level of a pathogen in a population] for G4 virus."

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Professor Chang said he and his colleagues had found evidence the abattoir workers in the swine industry in China had recently become infected.

The fact it is a new strain means people could have little or no immunity to the virus and current vaccines do not currently protect against it.

However, the researchers said drugs could be adapted to protect humans.

Professor James Wood, Head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, said the research "comes as a salutary reminder" of the risks posed by emerging pathogens.

He added that farmed animals could be the source of future pandemic viruses as humans come into contact with them more than wild animals.