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Scientists identify new swine flu that has ‘all the essential hallmarks’ to become a pandemic

The new flu strain is similar to the swine flu that spread globally in 2009.
The new flu strain is similar to the swine flu that spread globally in 2009.Dan Brouillette/Bloomberg

File under: Something to worry about a little bit later.

A new strain of the H1N1 swine flu virus found in pigs and pig farm workers in China has the potential to become a pandemic, a new study is warning.

According to the study, published Monday in the journal PNAS by researchers from China, the virus bears genes similar to those in the virus that caused the 2009 flu pandemic.

It is not an immediate threat, but it has “all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus” and needs close monitoring, researchers said.

The researchers said not only did they find the virus in pigs, they found that 10.4 percent of a sample of swine workers tested positive for the virus, with 18- to 35-year-olds infected at an even higher rate, 20.5 percent.

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The study said that the virus has “acquired increased human infectivity. Such infectivity greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses.”

“Controlling the prevailing [new virus] in pigs and close monitoring in human populations, especially in workers in swine industry, should be urgently implemented,” the study states.

It would be wise to pay close attention to the virus, Ian H. Brown, head of the virology department at Britain’s Animal and Plant Health Agency and one of two scientists who reviewed the paper before it was published, told The New York Times.

“It may be that with further change in the virus it could become more aggressive in people much as [the coronavirus] has done,” he said.

Robert Webster, an influenza investigator who recently retired from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, told Science that it’s a “guessing game” whether the virus, which hasn’t mutated yet to readily transmit between humans, will do so.

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“We just do not know a pandemic is going to occur until the damn thing occurs,” Webster said. “Will this one do it? God knows.”

The authors of the study included George Gao, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The world, of course, is already battling a pandemic. The novel coronavirus has sickened at least 10 million and killed more than 500,000 globally. More than 129,000 people have died from the virus in the United States and experts say those numbers may be an undercount. Researchers, scientists, and public health experts are frantically working to develop vaccines and treatments.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.


Brittany Bowker can be reached at brittany.bowker@globe.com. Follower her on Twitter @brittbowker.