Hot Air

NYT: Are you ready for … another pandemic from China?

Old and busted: Bats in China. New media hotness: Pigs in China. According to the New York Times, a new form of swine flu has emerged in pig farms and is spreading among workers — harmlessly so far, and for the last four years. If it does mutate into something less innocuous, the NYT reports based on a new scientific paper on the virus, get ready for Pandemic II.

Or is this hyperventilating horse puckey? YMMV, but …

A new strain of the H1N1 swine flu virus is spreading silently in workers on pig farms in China and should be “urgently” controlled to avoid another pandemic, a team of scientists says in a new study.

H1N1 is highly transmissible and spread around the world in 2009, killing about 285,000 people and morphing into seasonal flu.

The newer strain, known as G4 EA H1N1, has been common on China’s pig farms since 2016 and replicates efficiently in human airways, according to the study published on Monday. So far, it has infected some people without causing disease, but health experts fear that could change without warning.

“G4 viruses have all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus,” the study said, adding that controlling the spread in pigs and closely monitoring human populations “should be urgently implemented.”

Let’s assume we actually are on the precipice of a new pandemic, this time from an H1N1 virus. Don’t we have vaccines to deal with H1N1? Yes, but the new G4 version doesn’t get covered by them:

From these samples, researchers identified 179 swine influenza viruses — but not all of them posed a concern. Some only showed up one year out of the program’s seven, or eventually declined to nonthreatening levels.

But the G4 virus kept showing up in pigs, year after year — and even showed sharp increases in the swine population after 2016.

Further tests showed that G4 can infect humans by binding to our cells and receptors, and it can replicate quickly inside our airway cells. And though G4 holds H1N1 genes, people who have received seasonal flu vaccines won’t have any immunity.

Won’t have any immunity at first, a point to which we’ll return later. To get that illness, however, and for it to become a pandemic, the virus would have to pass from human to human. This virus apparently does not, at least for now — it passes only from pigs to people who work in their environment. The COVID-19 coronavirus became a pandemic because it spreads quickly immediately between people, but scientists have tracked G4 for four years without seeing any evidence of that kind of transmissibility. So far, all’s quiet on the community-spread front, says a professor of biology at the University of Washington:

Virologist Angela Rasmussen, a researcher at Columbia University and a Forbes contributor, threw even more cold water on the NYT report. In the first place, hypothetical criteria does not a potential pandemic make, Rasmussen pointed out on Twitter. In the second place, this is not a peer-reviewed study, and it got published in a manner that isn’t exactly known for reliability:

In other words, we have a virus that has spread on pig farms in China, and pretty much nowhere else. Is it a risk? Yes, but it’s not an imminent risk, and has yet to demonstrate any significant impact even on the humans that end up carrying it. That could change in a hurry, but as Rasmussen says in her extensive Twitter thread, it’s far better to prepare for a viral pandemic in general rather than focus on currently innocuous strains specifically. This is not the time to “freak out” and predict that the apocalypse is nigh.

And even if it did evolve into a much more dangerous virus, Bergstrom notes, it won’t be the end of the world anyway. We know much more about influenza vaccines than we did about coronavirus vaccines, he points out:

And in the meantime, beware of media ginning up panics:

One pandemic panic this year should really be enough for everyone. Right?

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