China study warns of pos­si­ble new 'pan­demic virus' from pigs

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A new flu virus found in Chi­nese pigs has be­come more in­fec­tious to hu­mans and needs to be watched closely in case it be­comes a po­ten­tial “pan­demic virus”, a study said, al­though ex­perts said there is no im­mi­nent threat.

A team of Chi­nese re­searchers looked at in­fluenza viruses found in pigs from 2011 to 2018 and found a “G4” strain of H1N1 that has “all the es­sen­tial hall­marks of a can­di­date pan­demic virus”, ac­cord­ing to the pa­per, pub­lished by the US jour­nal, Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Pig farm work­ers also showed el­e­vated lev­els of the virus in their blood, the au­thors said, adding that “close mon­i­tor­ing in hu­man pop­u­la­tions, es­pe­cially the work­ers in the swine in­dus­try, should be ur­gently im­ple­mented”.

The study high­lights the risks of viruses cross­ing the species bar­rier into hu­mans, es­pe­cially in densely pop­u­lated re­gions in China, where mil­lions live close to farms, breed­ing fa­cil­i­ties and wet mar­kets.

The cur­rent coro­n­avirus sweep­ing the world is be­lieved to have orig­i­nated in horse­shoe bats in south­west China and could have spread to hu­mans via a seafood mar­ket in the cen­tral city of Wuhan, where the virus was first iden­ti­fied.

The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion will read the Chi­nese study care­fully, spokesper­son

Chris­tian Lind­meier told a Geneva brief­ing on Tues­day, say­ing it was im­por­tant to col­lab­o­rate on find­ings and keep tabs on an­i­mal pop­u­la­tions. “It also high­lights we can­not let our guard down on in­fluenza and need to be vig­i­lant and con­tinue sur­veil­lance even in the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.”

Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry spokesper­son Zhao Li­jian told a daily news con­fer­ence on Tues­day that China was closely fol­low­ing de­vel­op­ments. “We will take all nec­es­sary mea­sures to pre­vent the spread and out­break of any virus,” he said.

The study said pigs were con­sid­ered im­por­tant “mix­ing ves­sels” for the gen­er­a­tion of pan­demic in­fluenza viruses.

China took ac­tion against an out­break of avian H1N1 in 2009, re­strict­ing in­com­ing flights from af­fected coun­tries and putting tens of thou­sands of peo­ple into quar­an­tine.

The new virus iden­ti­fied in the study is a re­com­bi­na­tion of the 2009 H1N1 vari­ant and a once preva­lent strain found in pigs.

But while it is ca­pa­ble of in­fect­ing hu­mans, there is no im­mi­nent risk of a new pan­demic, said Carl Bergstrom, a bi­ol­o­gist at the University of Wash­ing­ton. “There’s no ev­i­dence that G4 is cir­cu­lat­ing in hu­mans, de­spite five years of ex­ten­sive ex­po­sure,” he said on Twit­ter. “That’s the key con­text to keep in mind.” —

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