Want something to take your mind off of the Covid-19 coronavirus, the virus that’s causing the current pandemic? How about another virus, the genotype 4 (G4) reassortant Eurasian avian-like (EA) H1N1 flu virus? This virus, known as the G4 EA H1N1 flu virus for short, is relatively new, has been spreading among the swine population in China, and has, drum roll please, “pandemic potential.”
Yes, there’s yet another virus that could at some point cause another pandemic. That’s based on findings from a team of scientists in China, who just published a set of studies in the journal Proceedings of the National Academic of Science (PNAS).
This is certainly a case where “reaching your potential” is not a good thing. Does this mean that you’ll have to ask, “which pandemic are you referring to,” sometime soon? Could 2020 actually bring a second pandemic on top of the ongoing Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic? Two pandemics happening simultaneously would be quite the Bingo card entry for 2020. It would also require twice as many conspiracy theories to be circulated on social media, like 5G is somehow causing G4 too.
No need to panic right now. As I have mentioned before, panic is only useful at the disco and so far, there are no signs that 2020 will bring a second pandemic. Instead, consider the findings from the PNAS studies to be a warning, a “you’d-better-pay-attention-to-this-unless-you-really-like-social-distancing” warning. It’s also a “there’s-still-time-to-do-something-about-this-if-you-get-off-your-butt” warning. The team of scientists from the China Agricultural University, the Shandong Agricultural University, and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that the G4 EA H1N1 flu virus is not quite in the pandemic big leagues yet. But the virus already has a lot of the key “uh oh” characteristics that could at some point get it there. No one can predict whether and when for sure. Nevertheless, here are the seven that were identified by the PNAS study:
Uh Oh Characteristic 1: The G4 EA H1N1 flu virus is already circulating among swine. In fact, it is becoming increasingly common.
This virus hasn’t exactly been dormant or abstinent. It’s been getting around and reproducing among the swine population in China. The research team found this out by spending a lot of time sticking tens of thousands of cotton swabs up the noses of swine in 10 different provinces of China over a seven year period. They checked these samples as well as lung samples from swine for the presence of various flu strains. From 2011 to 2013 the most common variant of the EA H1N1 flu virus was the genotype 1 (G1) variant. But mutations in this variant eventually led to the emergence of a genotype 4 (G4) variant. Every year since 2014, this G4 variant became more and more common eventually, surpassing its original master, the G1 variant, to become the single predominant genotype of the EA H1N1 flu virus among the swine population in China. That deserves an “oinks” with a “z” in front of it.
Uh Oh Characteristic 2: The virus can already bind to human-like SAα2,6Gal receptors.
Zoinks indeed. A bunch of pigs sick with the flu ain’t pretty. But at least the virus can’t get into human cells, right? Well, a second set of experiments, this time in the lab, found that the G4 EA H1N1 flu virus can bind to human-like SAα2,6Gal receptors. This “SAα2,6Gal” may look like a strong password candidate but is actually the name of a receptor found on cells that line your respiratory tract. Think of such receptors as a docking station or USB port to your cells. Binding such receptors could help the virus attach itself to and eventually get into your cells.
Uh Oh Characteristic 3: The virus can already bind to human tracheal tissue.
A third set of experiments showed that the virus can indeed attach itself to human cells. And not just random human cells like those in your armpit or on your big toe but cells that line your trachea. Of all the long snake-like things in or on your body, your trachea ranks pretty darn high. It is your windpipe, that tube that connects your upper respiratory tract with the lower part of your respiratory tract and your lungs. So if a virus can bind to the cells that constitute your trachea, it could subsequently make its way down into your lungs.
Uh Oh Characteristic 4: The virus can already infect human airway epithelial cells.
Binding to your respiratory tract cells doesn’t necessarily mean that it can get inside, infect, and reproduce inside them, right? After all, just because someone hugs the door to a cheap motel, doesn’t mean that he or she has the keys to get in and do the nasty. Alas, a fourth set of experiments took cells that normally line human bronchi and alveoli and successfully infected them with the virus in the laboratory. And yes the viruses did the nasty inside these cells, reproducing quite readily.
Uh Oh Characteristic 5: Ferrets infected with the virus can spread the virus to other ferrets via either respiratory droplets or direct contact.
A fifth set of experiments “ferreted out” whether the virus could be transmitted from one person to another. Except, in this case, the persons were ferrets. This entailed first infecting a group of ferrets with the virus and before the ferrets could say “what the bleep,” they were placed in the same cage with other uninfected ferrets. Without any ferret social distancing, little ferret masks, or tiny bottles of ferret hand sanitizer involved, non-infected ferrets soon got infected, suggesting that the virus could be spread via direct contact. Additional experiments placed infected ferrets in cages that were adjacent to cages with uninfected ferrets so that they could not have direct contact with but could still rudely cough towards the non-infected ferrets. (Ferrets are really bad at coughing into their elbows.) This latter arrangement also resulted in uninfected ferrets getting infected, which implied that transmission of the virus could occur via respiratory droplets as well.
Uh Oh Characteristic 6: The virus is different enough from the viruses that are already in flu vaccines.
So this G4 G4 EA H1N1 flu virus can infect and reproduce in cells lining your lower respiratory tract. It can also help ferrets make other ferrest miserable. But at least the flu vaccine may offer some protection, right? After all, this is a flu virus as opposed to a coronavirus. Well, a sixth set of experiments used assays to compare the proteins on the surface of the G4 EA H1N1 viruses with those of flu virus strains that normally circulate among humans. The result? They didn’t appear to be similar enough for the regular flu vaccine to protect against the G4 EA H1N1 flu virus. Thus, you would need a new flu vaccine to be developed to protect against the G4 EA H1N1 flu virus.
Uh Oh Characteristic 7: The virus has already infected humans and seems to be more infectious than its predecessor.
This is an uh-oh on top of the other uh-ohs. The final part of the studies entailed collecting from 2016 to 2018 blood serum samples from swine workers in 15 different farms and from a selection of households that didn’t have swine workers to serve as a general population comparison. Testing revealed that 10.4% of the swine worker serum samples and 4.4% of general population sample had antibodies to and thus probably had been infected by the G4 variant at some point. Statistical analyses revealed that the swine workers were 2.25 more likely than the general population to have been infected by the virus. These numbers were higher than the 6.5% of swine workers and 2.2% of the general population who had antibodies to and thus had probably be infected by the G1 variant. This suggested that the G4 variant may be more infectious than its G1 predecessor.
In fact, in 2016 and 2019, there were case reports of a 46-year-old and a 9-year-old human getting sick with the flu and turning out to have been infected with G4-like EA H1N1 virus. Both had raised pigs.
Remember, just because the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic is going on, doesn’t mean that other viruses are saying, “hey, humans are having a rough go at it right now, let’s give them a break.” Nah, viruses all around the world will keep mutating and reproducing because that’s what they do. And with the roulette wheel of mutations going round and round, every now and then a new variant of the virus will emerge that can jump from animals to humans and potentially spread from human to human.
Therefore, it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” the next pandemic will arise. This means that the world can’t get caught off guard as it did with this current Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. It’s got to take every virus with “pandemic potential” seriously and act quickly to further study and employ strategies to track and contain the virus as soon as possible. After all, a pandemic is like a relationship break-up. It doesn’t simply happen overnight. If you pay attention, there are warning signs, opportunities to intervene, that long predate the breakup or pandemic. Just look at a publication in the October 2017 issue of the PNAS that stated prophetically, “the tremendous pandemic potential of coronaviruses was demonstrated twice in the past few decades by two global outbreaks of deadly pneumonia.”