What the world really doesn't need right now is another pandemic. The news that pigs in China are becoming more and more frequently infected with a strain of influenza that could be harmful to humans has struck a red alert amongst researchers.
With between 300 - 500 million pigs in China, the largest amount of pigs in the world, this discovery could cause serious issues if the strain were to jump across to humans.
The findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.
A nearly decade-long study on pigs in China has found that the pigs' flu strain contains some genes that were found in the 2009 swine flu pandemic. That last piece of information is crucial, and worrying, as it means that the strain has the potential to lead to human-to-human transmission if it jumps across to us, as per the researchers.
Pigs are a reservoir for infectious diseases. They can harbor bird, pig, and human influenza strains, which, if multiple of them infect one pig the viruses can swap and replace genes, turning into a new disease.
The team of researchers working on the project has tried to identify these novel types of viruses found in pigs. The team took over 30,000 swabs of pigs in slaughterhouses across 10 provinces in China, and another 1,000 swabs from pigs with respiratory symptoms at a veterinary teaching hospital.
There were 179 virus strains found, but this one, in particular, stood out to the researchers.
This new strain has been named G4 EA H1N1, and it's "the predominant genotype in circulation in pigs detected across at least 10 provinces," wrote the researchers.
Moreover, the team noted that this virus is "distinct from current human influenza vaccine strains, indicating that preexisting immunity derived from the present human seasonal influenza vaccines cannot provide protection."
After further examination, the team discovered that the virus spreads through airborne particles amongst animals. Ring any bells? So the team is adamant that "Controlling the prevailing G4 EA H1N1 viruses in pigs and close monitoring in human populations, especially the workers in the swine industry, should be urgently implemented."
As the nation holds the largest amount of pigs, it's imperative that "systematic surveillance of influenza viruses in pigs is essential for early warning and preparedness for the next potential pandemic," as per the researchers' study.