A new swine flu strain found in Chinese pigs has 'pandemic potential,' experts say

Researchers have discovered a swine flu virus in Chinese pigs that may be able to jump to humans and are sounding the alarm for another potential pandemic as international public health experts still struggle to contain the coronavirus.

Chinese and British scientists found that the new virus, G4 EA H1N1, shares characteristics with the H1N1 virus that caused the global pandemic in 2009. Among the similarities, the new virus can bind to, infect and replicate in tissue cells located the human airways, according to a study published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study was part of a surveillance project to identify potential pandemic influenza strains. Researchers analyzed nearly 30,000 nasal swabs taken from pigs in slaughterhouses in 10 Chinese provinces and another 1,000 nasal swabs from pigs with respiratory symptoms from 2011 to 2018.

The new virus was detected in 2016 and its antibodies were present in workers who handled the pigs, indicating that they may have been infected by the virus at one point. However, experts say there's no evidence of an outbreak and caution the public not to worry.

Asked about reports of a new swine flu, Dr. Anthony Fauci told a Senate committee Tuesday that the virus was “not an immediate threat” but something to “keep your eye on.”

“The Chinese over the last week or two have identified a virus in the environment… It is exhibiting reassortment capabilities,” Fauci said, noting that the new virus has characteristics of H1N1 and the 1918 virus.

The news comes as coronavirus cases soar in most of the United States, forcing states to pause or roll back phases in their economic reopening plans. The H1N1 virus in 2009 killed about 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate. 

“Thinking back over the history of infectious diseases, I can’t think of a time when we’ve had two simultaneous respiratory viruses that are pandemic,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University. “This would be an unprecedented event should this virus suddenly decide to activate and begin to spread.”

One thing that comforts Schaffner, who is also a spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America, is that the virus was discovered in 2016 and there has been no evidence of an outbreak, yet.

He also said the United States is much more prepared for an influenza pandemic than a coronavirus one as the country has already mitigated a similar pandemic in 2009 and vaccines that are developed every fall have an H1N1 component.

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However, it’s unknown whether current vaccines could work against the new virus or if U.S. public health systems would be capable of managing it as it continues to struggle under the weight of COVID-19.

Dr. Kawsar Talaat, assistant professor in the department of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says there are two big questions that still need to be answered: Is there human-to-human transmission and can it cause disease?

While antibodies were present in humans, suggesting possible infection and recovery, it's unclear if workers were infected by pigs or by other humans. There is also no evidence of symptoms that may indicate illness. 

“While it’s a really interesting study, it’s not something we have to be worried about,” she said.

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More research evidently needs to be done, but Schaffner says the study is an “early warning signal” to influenza investigators around the world and serves as a useful blip on the public health radar.

“The average person doesn’t need to do anything about it, but all of us in public health are now in alert,” Schaffner said. 

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.