Will swine flu cause the next pandemic? Not so fast!

Catastrophe! No sooner has the coronavirus paralyzed the world than another pandemic could come to the party. This is at least what would be feared given what has been said in the press this week. The cause: a swine flu with the mild name of G4 H1N1, which has just been the subject of a study in China. By scrutinizing it from 2011 to 2018 on nearly 30,000 nasal swabs from pigs, this new virus would have spread widely in the slaughterhouses of the Middle Empire since 2016. Experiments have also shown that ferrets can develop the disease which would be particularly infectious. The icing on the cake: 10% of the staff of the pig slaughterhouses studied have developed antibodies against this new flu, a sign that the virus can pass from animals to humans.

It didn’t take much more for the alarm to go off:G4 has all the essential features showing high adaptability to infect humans“, Conclude the authors of the study by specifying that”the concern is that human infections with the G4 virus will not lead to human adaptation and increase the risk of a human pandemic” They are therefore asking for the establishment of an enhanced surveillance system for contacts between pigs and humans. But unlike them, others of their infectious disease colleagues are not so alarmist.

No problem in sight for the moment

If this G4 virus should indeed be monitored, other elements indicate that as things stand, there is no question of panicking beyond measure. First, if antibodies against the disease have been detected in humans, no deaths due to this pathogen have been noted. Scientists haven’t even noticed any flu symptoms in humans. This makes Jean-Luc Gala, infectious disease doctor and head of clinic in Saint-Luc, say that there is no need to worry at this point. “The fact that antibodies are found does not mean that the person was actually sick. It just shows that there was contact, which is not surprising in the case of these breeders, and that immunity plays its role.“He says.

Nor is he surprised by the discovery of such a virus in this type of environment. He recalls that China is known for its intensive pig farming and that the concentration of animals there is such that it can only constitute a virus nest. According to him, this is one of the elements that makes the Middle Empire the cause of so many diseases, if we add to this the consumption of exotic animals. “The researchers focused their study on a risk category and it is not surprising that they find something. They investigated and then published and there is a buzz, but for now, that’s it. If we continue to search, we would probably find other viruses with similar contagion potentialsAdds Jean-Luc Gala. For him, as long as there is no human-to-human transmission and flu-like symptoms, the situation is under control.

To remain vigilant

If this virus is not as dangerous as it is, the question that arises is why this study had such an echo. For Jean-Luc Gala, this is mainly due to three elements linked to the current context. “In my opinion, this is due to the fact that we are emerging from a pandemic which has resulted from a passage from animals to humans, with all the consequences that this has had. This creates worry about everything that looks like it. On the other hand, we know that major flu pandemics recur about every 30-40 years. However, after the Spanish flu, that of Asia and then of Hong-Kong, the timing does not play in our favor today and the risks can be higher to have a worrying mutation of the influenza virus. Finally, we know that the latter is easily transmissible from human to human, hence the fear of a pandemic scenario if this swine flu were to acquire this characteristic, which, I repeat, is not for not yet the case“, He notes.

All of these factors make it necessary to remain vigilant without exaggerating the magnitude of the threat. The only real concern lies in the ability of the G4 virus to operate what specialists call a “shift”, that is to say a brutal and consequent mutation of its genetic material. This would then make it potentially capable of becoming fatal and infectious to humans, but these events are completely unpredictable. All that can be said now is that it hasn’t happened yet.

In the meantime, what can you do to avoid losing control of the disease? For Jean-Luc Gala, not much, at least on the side of the doctors: “when the shift occurs, we see it but we cannot prevent it. The only thing that can be said about the prevention of these mutations is that the battery mode of pig production is relatively dangerous. We must monitor this animal population and as soon as there is a problem of excessive mortality in these pigs, we must intervene very quickly. It is more a problem of breeding than of medicine. It is an ongoing surveillance that already exists, as with any product in the food chain».

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