Yorkshire pigs wallow in mud at the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Maryland. Image courtesy of Mark Peters.
A new strain of swine flu with the potential to become pandemic (G4 EA H1N1) has recently been identified by scientists in China. While it is not an immediate threat, the new virus has all of the signs of being highly adapted to infect humans, and should be closely monitored. If the virus mutates further, it could set off another global outbreak.
The last pandemic flu was the swine flu outbreak in 2009, and ended up being less deadly than initially feared- most likely due to a large portion of the older populations having some form of immunity from the virus similarity to old flu viruses from years past. That virus, officially called A/H1N1pdm09 is now included in the annual flu vaccine to prevent future outbreaks.
“Right now we are distracted with coronavirus and rightly so. But we must not lose sight of potentially dangerous new viruses. While this new virus is not an immediate problem, we should not ignore it,” explains Professor Kin-Chow Chang, Nottingham University (UK).
A flu pandemic is a rare event, but still could occur if a new virus strain emerges that can spread easily from person to person. Flu viruses are constantly changing and mutating, which is why the flu vaccine is also updated every year.
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes the process for updating the vaccine:
“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. 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. It also highlights that we cannot let down our guard on influenza; we need to be vigilant and continue surveillance even during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Image of the H1N1 virus from the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Image courtesy of The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)