After several months of lockdowns, closures, self-isolation and social distancing orders, many countries around the world are finally beginning to lift their pandemic restrictions and open back up.
At the same time, there are many parts of the world that are only experiencing the peak of their COVID-19 outbreaks now, and of course, everywhere in the world the threat of a second wave of the virus is looming.
As most of the world continues to grapple with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have identified a new flu virus that has pandemic potential.
A New Flu Virus
Scientists in China have identified a new flu virus carried by pigs that they say can infect humans, and therefore has the potential to become another pandemic . This new virus is a strain of the H1N1 virus that killed about 285 thousand people in 2009 .
The outbreak a decade ago ended up being less deadly than initially feared because it was similar to other flu viruses that had circulated in previous years, so older people had some immunity to it. That virus is now covered by the annual flu vaccine to make sure people are protected .
The new disease is being called the G4 virus, and, according to the study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), it has all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus .
The G4 virus was discovered during a pig surveillance program that lasted from 2011 to 2018. During that time they collected over 30 thousand nasal swab samples from pigs in slaughterhouses and veterinary teaching hospitals across ten provinces in China. Researchers identified 179 swine flu viruses, but many of them do not pose any kind of threat.
The G4 virus, however, continued to show up in pigs every year of the study, and showed a sharp increase in 2016. Further testing showed that the virus has the capability of infecting humans, and although it is similar to H1N1, people who have received the vaccine won’t have any immunity .
Close Monitoring is a Priority
Ian H. Brown, the head of the virology department at Britain’s Animal and Plant Health Agency was one of two scientists who reviewed the paper before it was published. He is advising that scientists pay close attention to the virus.
“It may be that with further change in the virus it could become more aggressive in people much as SARS-CoV-2 has done,” he said .
Eurasion variations of the H1N1 virus have been circulating in farmed pigs throughout Europe and Asia for many years, but the instance of the G4 virus in farmed pigs in China rose significantly after 2014.
“It’s a very important study, and the virus looks quite dangerous,” said Li-Min Huang, director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at National Taiwan University Hospital. “We need to be worried about any disease with the potential to spread human to human.”
Dr. Huang said that an important next step would be to identify if any of the infected workers at the farms had contracted the virus from humans, and whether or not anyone had spread the virus to their families .
Should You be Worried?
So far, there is no evidence that the G4 virus has spread from human to human, which is a very promising sign.
“This is not a *new* new virus; it’s been very common in pigs since 2016,” said Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington. “There’s no evidence that G4 is circulating in humans, despite five years of extensive exposure. That’s the key context to keep in mind.” 
Despite the fact that a flu pandemic could potentially happen at any time, they are still rare events, and only happen if a new strain emerges that can spread from human to human. Flu viruses are constantly changing, which is why vaccines are constantly being updated, but they don’t usually become pandemics.
Prof Kin-Chow Chang, who works at Nottingham University in the UK, however, warns that we cannot ignore this potential threat .
For now, though, scientists are telling the public that there is no need to panic.
Farmed Animals are a Source of Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a number of concerns around the world about humans coming in close contact with wild animals, and the potential of these interactions to transmit zoonotic diseases. Scientists are warning, however, that farmed animals pose a greater threat because humans have greater contact with them than wildlife .
“Pig farming is a massive industry in China and pigs can be important hosts from which novel influenza viruses may emerge,” said James Wood, Head of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge .
The researchers from the study said that in order to decrease the risk of creating another pandemic, farmers and authorities in China need to control the spread of the virus among pigs, and closely monitor anyone who works with the animals .
A spokeswoman for the World Health Organization also remarked the importance of staying vigilant and continuing to monitor influenza viruses, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic .
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