A 7-year study published yesterday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified a new swine flu virus (G4 EA H1N1) that could have pandemic potential.
How do scientists know this? This new virus has genes that resemble the flu virus that caused the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic (which bore the informal nickname “swine flu”). Right now, G4 EA H1N1 can only be passed from pigs to people, with no human transmission. Still, it is one of the most common viruses found in pigs since 2016. Nearly 30% of farmworkers exposed to compromised pigs have become infected.
As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, getting ahead of this new virus will be paramount. As it stands now, no one has immunity other than farmers who have come into contact with infected pigs.
But creating a vaccine for this virus will be an easier task than creating one for COVID-19, since a vaccine for the related 2009 flu already exists. Researchers won’t have to start from scratch. And once a new vaccine is ready, farmers can vaccinate their pigs. This will stop pig-to-pig or pig-to-human spread of the virus, and prevent it from mutating further.
Should we be worried?
Scientists say that we shouldn’t be alarmed by this virus. Managing COVID-19 is still our biggest priority. But we can rest assured that there are researchers in the labs already keeping track of G4 EA H1N1. Research veterinarians at veterinary colleges have been doing this for years. Why? Because they know that livestock and domesticated animals are more capable of spreading zoonotic viruses to people.
Monitor viruses like we monitor volcanoes
The lesson from this new discovery isn’t to panic and worry. The real takeaway is to take early threats seriously, and prepare. Even the earliest signs of a new zoonotic virus should let researchers know that a vaccine might be necessary.
Accordingly, we should think of new viruses as volcanoes or fault lines. Even an active volcano doesn’t erupt every single day. But it’s still imperative to prepare for the day that it does. That way, we won’t suffer as a result of a danger we could have foreseen.