A new swine flu in China has ‘pandemic potential.’ 2 scientists explain why you shouldn’t panic

June 30, 2020, 10:07 AM UTC

Scientists have discovered a swine flu in China with “pandemic potential,” but some experts say we shouldn’t spend too much energy worrying about it becoming the next big outbreak.

On Monday, a group of researchers including George Gao, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control, published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identifying a swine flu in China that’s been transmitted to humans. The scientists call the virus G4 and say it bears resemblance to the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic that killed nearly 20,000 people in 2009 and 2010.

The researchers surveilled and tested swine populations in China from 2011 to 2018, and found that the virus became “predominant” in swine populations beginning in 2016. The researchers also discovered that the virus was transmitted to roughly 10% of the humans who worked with the infected pigs. The researchers, however, didn’t find evidence that the virus could be transmissible between humans, though they did discover that the disease could be passed between ferrets.

The virus has “all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus,” the researchers wrote. “[Its] infectivity greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans,” they added.

The study sparked a slew of news articles about the threat of a new pandemic even as the world reels from COVID-19. But some experts are urging caution in jumping to any doomsday conclusions.

“There’s no evidence that G4 is circulating in humans, despite five years of extensive exposure,” Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington, wrote on Twitter. “That’s the key context to keep in mind.”

Rather than ring alarm bells about another impending pandemic, Bergstrom said epidemiologists should continue screening for the virus and “keep a careful eye” on whether the virus undergoes changes that would make it more dangerous to humans.

“Sure, this virus meets a lot of the basic criteria, but it’s not for sure going to cause a hypothetical 2020 flu pandemic, or even be a dominant strain in humans,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, wrote on Twitter. “What we should NOT do is freak out and expect that another flu pandemic is imminent.”

Bergstrom added that the new virus presents “no immediate threat to public health,” and, for the time being, we can all get back to figuring out how to contain the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.