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New swine flu in China leaves experts worried

Chinese researchers say that they have discovered a new type of swine flu in their hogs that has already passed to humans and could cause another pandemic.

“From 2011 to 2018, researchers took 30,000 nasal swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses in 10 Chinese provinces and in a veterinary hospital, allowing them to isolate 179 swine flu viruses,” says CBS News. “ The majority were of a new kind which has been dominant among pigs since 2016.”

The report concludes that blood tests taken from agricultural workers showed that 10.4 percent of workers who handled hogs have antibodies for the virus. While that shows that the virus can be transmitted from hogs to humans, so far the virus has not been transferred human-to-human.  

However, the fact that it resides in humans is trouble.

“It is of concern that human infection of G4 virus will further human adaptation and increase the risk of a human pandemic,” the researchers wrote.

China has a long, unhappy history with viruses. In addition to the standard undeveloped diseases like yellow fever, Chikungunya and Dengue fever, there are several novel viruses that have appeared in China over the last 20 years.  

Since 1997, there have been sporadic outbreaks of various strains of Asian avian flu that have killed about 100 people and have necessitated wholesale slaughter of millions of poultry.

In 2003, SARS escaped from China, infecting 8,098 people and killing 774 people. The mortality rate was over 50 percent for those over 60-years-old.

Since August 2018, a strain of coronavirus, called African swine flu, has infected hogs in China. The outbreak is so infectious that the country has culled between 40 and 60 percent of its hog herds and driven up the price of pork until unaffordable by most Chinese.

“Despite outbreak figures from the agriculture ministry suggesting far fewer animals involved, the ministry’s own data showed that by September 2019 the herd had shrunk 41 [percent] year on year. Many in the industry believe it shrunk by as much as 60 [percent],” reports Reuters.

The report emphasizes that sanitation and monitoring of agricultural employees are key for China to keep the viruses under control.

Said James Wood, head of the department of veterinary medicine at Cambridge University: “The work comes as a salutary reminder that we are constantly at risk of new emergence of zoonotic pathogens and that farmed animals, with which humans have greater contact than with wildlife, may act as the source for important pandemic viruses.”

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