Six months into the global COVID-19 outbreak, a study has come out documenting a relatively new strain of the H1N1 swine flu virus. The authors say this strain — G4 EA H1N1 — must be dealt with “urgently” in order to prevent a potential pandemic. At this point, the virus has only been found in China, with transmission occurring through contact between pigs and humans. Though no human-to-human transmission has been reported yet, it’s still something infectious disease experts are keeping a close watch on right now. Hearing about another virus with pandemic potential during a global pandemic is definitely unsettling, but should we panic? Here’s what you need to know about this new strain, how it compares to previous H1N1 outbreaks, and what people should know about protecting themselves.
How did they find this new strain?
For starters, this “new” strain has actually been around since 2016, says Dr. Theresa MacPhail, a medical anthropologist, professor at Stevens Institute of Technology and author of The Viral Network: Pathography of the H1N1 Influenza Pandemic. “Since 1952, we’ve had a global influenza surveillance and response system, which includes 143 national influenza centers around the globe,” she tells Rolling Stone. “And their sole purpose is to track changes in influenza strains.” The new research published on June 29th in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is part of that system.
This study monitored pigs in 10 Chinese provinces between 2011 to 2018. According to MacPhail, the influenza surveillance system first noticed this strain of H1N1 becoming more virulent in pigs in 2014. “[The virus] started to get a better hold on the lungs of pigs, and that’s important because pigs have very similar organ systems to us, and we swap influenza strains quite easily with pigs,” she explains. Not only has this strain been around for a while, this study itself was sent for review in December 2019, prior to when scientists think the novel coronavirus began spreading in Wuhan, China. So while it may seem new and terrifying, it’s been on scientists’ radar for quite some time.
Should we be worried?
At this point, probably not. It’s not unusual for researchers to find new virulent strains of existing viruses — they just typically don’t get this much attention. “I hate to be this person, but it’s like suddenly, coronavirus has made everyone aware of [something that] is normally a threat,” MacPhail explains. “Flu is a constant concern for global health, and we are actually much more prepared for a flu pandemic than they were for [COVID-19].” In reality, this is business-as-usual, and evidence that the influenza surveillance and response system is working. “It is concerning, but it’s just because people don’t know that this is always happening,” she says. “I think it’s a perfect storm right now for people to panic.”
What do we know about it?
Based on what is known about this particular strain, transmission occurs when humans come in close contact with pigs that are infected with the virus. Currently, there is no evidence that it can be transmitted between humans, says Dr. Claudia Hoyen, an infectious disease specialist with University Hospitals Cleveland. But that doesn’t mean that’s impossible: the 2009 H1N1 outbreak in Mexico initially spread from swine to humans, and then between humans. According to Hoyen, what has researchers concerned about this G4 EA H1N1 strain is that there are parts of its genetic material that could easily transform into a flu that could spread between people, if it ended up mutating or picking up other genetic information. “The thing about viruses and bacteria is that they replicate pretty quickly,” she tells Rolling Stone. “And they’re often making mistakes. Occasionally, those mistakes will become their genetic advantage, so really we can’t predict with any precision, if or when [human-to-human transmission] will happen.”
The recent study found that 10.4% of participants that worked with pigs tested positive for the G4 EA H1N1 strain of the virus. This rate nearly doubles to 20.5% for people aged 18 to 35, indicating that humans are being infected at increasing rates. “Such infectivity greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses,” the authors write. The good news for now, Hoyen says, is that at this point, this strain hasn’t yet been found outside of China. “It’s really something that the Chinese are taking very seriously and following closely,” she explains. “I’m actually reassured that the Chinese seem to have a handle on this, and will hopefully be able to contain it before it would become any sort of a problem for anyone else.”
How does it compare to previous H1N1 outbreaks?
If H1N1 or the swine flu sound familiar, it’s because it has been around for years, including the 2009 outbreak in Mexico, and the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Though there isn’t worldwide consensus on the origin of the 1918 outbreak, some people — including MacPhail — believe it originated at a pig farm in Kansas. But while the new H1N1 strain also began with pigs, there are stark differences between a potential swine flu outbreak today compared to the one a century ago. To begin with, in 1918, there were no influenza vaccines or antibiotics. Of course, antibiotics don’t get rid of viruses, but Hoyen says that bacterial pneumonia was a common complication during the 1918 Flu Pandemic, resulting in many deaths. Having effective antibiotics now could save lives if human-to-human transmission of G4 EA H1N1 does occur.
In addition, modern medicine is far more adept at making new influenza vaccines. “That’s actually what happened in 2009 — people were able to quickly change gears and make an H1N1 vaccine for that specific strain,” Hoyen explains. “And so we were able to get a lot of people vaccinated at that time. Then, it died out as a pandemic and just became part of our natural grouping of flu viruses that spread around the world.” Even though there were previous outbreaks of various coronaviruses — like SARS and MERS — researchers never developed an effective vaccine, so when COVID-19 hit, they were essentially starting from scratch.
COVID vaccine or not, both MacPhail and Hoyen believe that our experience with the novel coronavirus may actually put us in a better position for dealing with another potentially dangerous infectious virus. For example, there are already travel restrictions in place, decreasing the chances of the new H1N1 strain spreading internationally if it does end up being transmissible between humans. Also, American livestock farmers are being especially vigilant right now, Hoyen says, and will alert public health officials if they suspect any type of transmission is happening here. If it does get to that point, MacPhail says that the same public health measures — like physical distancing and wearing face masks — are used to stop the spread of both COVID and influenza, so in theory, we’ve never been more prepared. And no, Hoyen says that people do not need to stop eating pork.
Will this year’s flu shot help?
At this stage, the 2020 flu shot has already gone into production, so if the new strain of H1N1 does start spreading between humans, it won’t be included in this year’s vaccine. However, MacPhail urges everyone — especially older adults and immunocompromised individuals — to still get the flu shot this fall, because we should take any precautions available to protect ourselves and others from potential health risks.
So, no — there’s no need to panic about the new swine flu strain right now, particularly because it doesn’t appear as though it can be transmitted from person-to-person, and most people are already in pandemic mode and taking the steps necessary to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. “That said, we definitely don’t want this to become a problem, because we need all of our resources right now to be focused on the coronavirus in terms of coming up with a vaccine,” Hoyen says. “Hopefully this [new strain of H1N1] will not become an issue, so that our attention is not diverted from keeping ourselves and everybody else safe from the coronavirus. It is here and it is real, so it’s important that we stay physically distant, but socially connected.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the new strain of H1N1 was first detected in 2014; it was first detected in 2016.