New Strain of Swine Flu Virus Has Pandemic Potential, Scientists Warn
Wed, April 21, 2021

New Strain of Swine Flu Virus Has Pandemic Potential, Scientists Warn


The coronavirus pandemic has infected millions of people and caused more than 505,000 deaths. Economic impacts are already felt in many countries after several businesses decided to shut down. Experts warned nations that they are likely to be left scathed by the outbreak’s financial ramifications. 

A recent report by the UN’s trade and development agency revealed that the slowdown in the global economy caused by the pandemic is likely to cost at least $1 trillion. Richard Kozul-Wright, the director of the Division on Globalization and Development Strategies at UNCTAD, said that it’s been predicted that the economy may grow by only 0.5% which would involve “a $2 trillion hit” to gross domestic product.

“We envisage a slowdown in the global economy to under two percent for this year, and that will probably cost in the order of $1 trillion, compared with what people were forecasting back in September,” Kozul-Wright said.

With this terrible prediction, the last thing we want now is another pandemic. However, 2020 isn’t in our favor yet. Scientists warn that a new flu virus in pigs could cause a future flu pandemic.

The 2009 H1N1 Swine Flu Virus

On June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the swine flu virus—which is widely known as H1N1—had triggered a pandemic. This was the first time a new flu virus had emerged and triggered a wide-scale illness worldwide after four decades. Previous reports showed that the strain represented a unique combination of influenza viruses never before seen in humans or animals. 

In the US alone, the swine flu caused over 60.8 million infections, 273,304 hospitalizations, and 12,469 deaths between April 12, 2009, and April 10, 2010. Globally, an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people died from swine flu in the first year of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 80% of the H1N1 virus-related deaths occurred in people younger than 65 years old.

According to Healthline, an American website and provider of health information, H1N1 is highly contagious because it can spread quickly from person to person. Like COVID-19, a simple sneeze can cause thousands of germs to spread through the air. Those who are infected by the virus can also spread it by coughing and touching a germ-covered surface and then touching their eyes or nose. While the infection could be severe, experts said that it wasn’t devastating in most cases.

Previous studies showed that the H1N1 virus had a relatively low fatality rate, which was estimated at 0.2%. By contrast, the fatality rate of the 1918 flu pandemic was about 2.5% of its victims. The WHO added that the H1N1 death toll was lower than the global death toll for typical flu seasons. After the pandemic ended, the virus became one of the seasonal flu viruses that circulate in people every year. 



A New Pandemic May Emerge

The H1N1 virus wasn’t much of a big deal after it ended, mainly because the transmission rates have already been controlled. The virus in humans spread back into pigs. However, the genes of the virus were able to mix into new combinations, thus, creating new viruses like G4, a genetically descended disease from the H1N1 swine flu. 

A study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) revealed that this newly-discovered swine flu can infect humans and has the potential to cause a future pandemic. The researchers discovered the G4 virus during a pig surveillance program. According to Live Science, a science news website that features groundbreaking developments in science, space, technology, health, the environment, our culture, and history, the team analyzed nearly 30,000 nasal swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses in 10 provinces in China collected between 2011 and 2018.

The researchers then found nearly 180 different strains of flu virus infecting pigs. The good news is that not all of these can be life-threatening. However, the scientists found out that the G4 virus kept showing up in pigs, year after year. It even showed sharp increases in the swine population after 2016. A survey from 2016 to 2018 revealed that G4 already appears to have infected humans in China. Reports showed that more than 10% of swine workers on pig farms and 4.4% of the general population in Hebei and Shandong provinces—places with high pig numbers—already tested positive.



According to The New York Times, an American newspaper based in New York City with worldwide influence and readership, the findings also showed that workers between the ages of 18 and 35 tested positive at a higher rate: 20.5%. Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, said that the most promising sign so far is that there’s still no evidence yet that G4 could spread from person to person.

It's been very common in pigs since 2016. "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,” he said.

While the researchers said that the virus has "the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus," experts say that this doesn't mean it will definitely cause a future pandemic. "Our understanding of what is a potential pandemic influenza strain is limited. Sure, this virus meets a lot of the basic criteria but it's not for sure going to cause a hypothetical 2020 flu pandemic, or even be a dominant strain in humans,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, said.

James Wood, head of Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the study, said that the new research is a "salutary reminder that we are constantly at risk of a new emergence of zoonotic pathogens.” Farmed animals may act as the source for important pandemic viruses because they have greater contact with humans than with wildlife.

The next crucial step is finding out whether any of the infected workers at the pig farms had contracted the virus from humans, according to Li-Min Huang, director of the Division of ​Pediatric Infectious Disease​s at National Taiwan University Hospital. “It’s a very important study, and the virus looks quite dangerous. We need to be worried about any disease with the potential to spread human to human,” he said.