People are wondering if the new virus could be the next COVID-19.

By Claire Gillespie
June 30, 2020
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As if the ongoing coronavirus pandemic isn’t enough to worry about, scientists in China have discovered a new strain of swine flu that could potentially infect humans and lead to a worldwide outbreak. Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers advised swift action to control the virus in pigs and monitor swine industry workers for signs of illness. 

The researchers also said that while the new swine flu is not a pressing issue, a close eye should be kept on the virus, which they’ve named G4 EA H1N1. 

The new swine flu was addressed on June 30 by Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. During a Senate hearing, Dr. Fauci said the new flu strain was "not an immediate threat" but something US health officials are paying attention to. The new virus is showing "reassortment capabilities," Dr. Fauci explained, which means it can mutate or exchange genes with other virus strains.

All of this news sounds alarming. But other experts are also calling for calm right now and don't believe the new swine flu virus should cause panic.

For starters, it isn't known for sure if the virus has jumped from pigs to humans. “It’s important that those doing influenza surveillance are tracking this virus and understanding whether it is making any forays into humans,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland, tells Health. 

According to Dr. Adalja, the new virus does have some worrying characteristics that point to an ability to transmit in humans. “It’s important that we rank influenza viruses in relation to pandemic risk, and this is one that needs to be taken seriously by those preparing for an influenza pandemic or outbreak,” he says.   

Also, this isn't the first time the world has grappled with swine flu. The last global flu pandemic was the novel influenza A (H1N1) virus of 2009, a swine flu that was first detected in the US and quickly spread around the world. Over an initial 12-month period, the Centers for Disease Control and infection estimated that there were 12,469 swine flu deaths in the United States, and between 151,700 and 575,400 deaths worldwide. (By comparison, COVID-19 has killed more than 507,000 people globally since January 2020, per data from Johns Hopkins University.)

The 2009 swine flu virus, called A/H1N1pdm09, was less deadly than first expected, mainly because many older people had some level of immunity to it—probably because of other H1N1 viruses that they’d been exposed to in the past. That virus is now a regular human flu virus, continues to circulate seasonally worldwide, and is covered by the annual flu vaccine millions of people get as flu season begins in the fall.

Researchers say the new strain in China is similar to the 2009 strain, but because it is so new, people could have little or no immunity to it. “There’s no vaccination that would protect against this new virus,” Dr. Adalja adds. 

Flu viruses are constantly changing, although they don’t usually turn into a pandemic—which happens when a new strain develops the ability to spread easily between people. Dr. Adalja points out that the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic arose from pigs, and there’s no reason why the next pandemic virus won’t come from pigs as well.

However, he also stresses that the general public doesn’t need to worry about the new flu virus at this point. “It’s only been identified in China—there are no cases in the US,” he says. 

A World Health Organization spokeswoman told the BBC that the new flu virus highlights the need to stay on the ball regarding influenza surveillance, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. "Eurasian avian-like swine influenza virus are known to be circulating in the swine population in Asia and to be able to infect humans sporadically,” she said. “Twice a year during the influenza vaccine composition meetings, all information on the viruses is reviewed and the need for new candidate vaccine viruses is discussed. We will carefully read the paper to understand what is new.” 

To protect yourself against infection in general, including the flu, the World Health Organization says the most important thing is to keep your hands clean, washing them with soap and water regularly or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. In other words, exactly what you’ve been doing to protect yourself from the new coronavirus. 

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