Wait, Are We Going to Have Two Pandemics?

Headlines recently warned of a new influenza virus with “pandemic potential” based on research on viruses in pig farms in China. However, there is no need to worry immediately: while it is always safe to assume that there will be another pandemic someday , this one is not yet worrisome.

What did the study find?

This document is a report from a program that periodically tests farm pigs to see if they have any interesting new viruses. Pigs, birds, and humans can share flu viruses, although in most cases, a virus that specializes in one species will not infect another.

The weirdness of flu, however, is that its genes are like a deck of cards that can mix with genes from another virus. If a person is infected with two different influenza viruses, a hybrid virus can result. Most viruses don’t, but the flu does. And when that happens, it often happens in pigs. If you want to go into the details, SciTable has a good explanation .

The virus, which they describe as “G4, EA, H1N1”, has been circulating among pigs since at least 2016, according to the study. It is capable of infecting humans, not just pigs. Very few people are known to have contracted the disease, and nearly 10% of agricultural workers on some farms have antibodies to it, which means they may have become infected without realizing it.

What does it mean for a virus to have “pandemic potential”?

First, it’s important to note that this virus has been around for several years and has n’t caused a COVID-19-style pandemic.

However, as virologist Angela Rasmussen explains on her Twitter thread , the G4 has several features that give it “pandemic potential.” It can easily enter human cells (some animal influenza viruses cannot). It can reproduce in human cells and create infectious particles. It can be passed from person to person, but we’re not entirely sure yet. But most importantly, we have no evidence that the virus can cause serious illness. If you’ve contracted the virus, but your health isn’t affected, that’s not a big problem, is it?

As long as we are safe. But flu viruses love to mutate, so this virus can be a problem if it mutates to take these extra steps. Or, as Rasmussen put it , “Yes, this virus can develop the ability to effectively spread from person to person.”

So how do we get scared?

Here’s the thing about influenza: there is always another pandemic just around the corner , we just don’t know when it will come. I remember how this applied to every biology lesson when I was in school in the early 2000s. The professor told us about past influenza pandemics , including the 1918 pandemic , and pointed out: we must .

As you remember, there was a strain of pandemic flu in 2009. It was bad! Not COVID-19 is bad, but a lot of people got sick and a lot of people died. Fortunately, the CDC and colleagues around the world got together pretty quickly and it worked out. The nice thing about the variability in influenza is that we already have a range of influenza vaccines that change every year. So, as soon as the scientists found out that 2009 H1N1 could be a problem, they got to work, and we got a vaccine for it very quickly.

Could this new virus be as dangerous as the 1918 flu? A solvable problem like the 2009 problem? Or something worse? We do not know. But the first step in managing a pandemic is keeping track of what viruses are out there. This is not the time for us to panic, but it’s good that virologists and epidemiologists know that this virus needs to be monitored.

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