Will G4, the New Swine Flu Strain, Lead to Another Pandemic?
As the world continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, another possible pandemic is on the horizon. Researchers in China have revealed the discovery of a strain of the H1N1 virus—which caused the 2009 pandemic—and according to the scientists, this new type of swine flu has the potential to be a new pandemic.
It has “all the essential hallmarks of being a highly adapted to infect humans,” said scientists from Chinese universities and China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
They’re calling this new strain G4 EA H1N1.
What is G4?
G4 is genetically descended from the H1N1 virus, otherwise known as swine flu. The new virus has three strains, which show similarities to strains found in European and Asian birds, the H1N1 strain of the 2009 pandemic, and the North American H1N1 that has genes from avian, human, and pig influenza viruses.
Based on their observations using animal testing, namely ferrets since they experience the same symptoms as humans, G4 is “highly infectious” and replicates in human cells quickly. This combination of strains occurred in an event called “reassortment” when multiple strains of influenza viruses infect the same animal and swap genes.
Symptoms are respiratory in nature, and the Chinese scientists reported that G4 has already been transmitted from animals (pigs) to humans. In fact, blood tests showed that around 10.4 percent of swine workers had already been infected with the virus as antibodies to the virus were present in the blood. The researchers predict that around 4.4 percent of the general population of China has already been exposed to the virus.
While animal-to-human transmission has been confirmed, there is still no evidence that is has transmitted from human to human—yet.
Is G4 dangerous?
The researchers remarked that “it is a concern that human infection of G4 virus will further human adaptation and increase the risk of a human pandemic.”
Scientists, particularly those studying coronaviruses, have long warned the public of potential pandemics emerging from nature.
"The work comes as a salutary reminder that we are constantly at risk of new emergence of zoonotic pathogens (transmission from animal to human) and that farmed animals, with which humans have greater contact than with wildlife, may act as the source for important pandemic viruses," said James Wood, head of the department of veterinary medicine at Cambridge University.
Can G4 infect humans?
Yes, but only from animals. Chinese scientists have yet to confirm whether humans can infect other humans. However, the researchers are concerned as the virus acts similar to that of avian influenza, which humans are not immune to.
“From the data presented, it appears that this is a swine influenza virus that is poised to emerge in humans,” said Edward Holmes, an evolutionary biologist who studies pathogens at the University of Sydney.
Meanwhile, the head researcher and author of the paper on G4, Sun Honglei, said that G4’s similarity to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic “may promote the virus adaptation” or mutation toward human-to-human transmission.
“Clearly this situation needs to be monitored very closely,” said Holmes.
Honglei also confirmed the need to “strengthen the surveillance” of the situation.
Should we be worried?
While the researchers of G4 believe the virus has pandemic potential, others are unsure. Influenza investigator Robert Webster called it a “guessing game,” adding that “We just don’t know a pandemic is going to occur until the damn thing occurs. Will this one do it? God knows.”
Some scientists are skeptical. “The likelihood that this particular variant is going to cause a pandemic is low,” said Martha Nelson, evolutionary biologist at the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center.
But even Nelson admitted that no one expected H1N1 to cause a pandemic: “Influenza can surprise us.”
So what now? While we shouldn’t fall to fear-mongering, neither should we be careless. The COVID-19 pandemic took a turn for the worse when many refused to acknowledge the danger of the situation until it was too late.
The pandemic has already taught us to be safe rather than sorry, and this early information on G4 will at least encourage governments and research institutions to prepare for the worst-case scenario. And heaven knows we’re already experienced dealing with one pandemic. But can we survive two?