A new strain of influenza has put social media in an apocalyptic panic.
Getty / China Photos
TheThe pandemic is far from over and if you read the latest headlines, there is a potential new pandemic just around the corner. This was caused by influenza – the virus that causes the "flu" – and the culprit was found in pigs in China.
But the headlines overdo it a little. Let us clarify the record.
Various reports of a new study published on Monday in the National Academy of Sciences' Proceedings magazine have panicked social media with apocalyptic endgame scenarios and worried many that we are staring at a double pandemic that will end everything and we drag ourselves back to our bunkers in the hills.
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The study examined pig populations in China from 2011 to 2018, took thousands of swabs from slaughtered breeding pigs and tested them for influenza viruses. The research team discovered a strain similar to H1N1 influenza, the virus that caused a pandemic in 2009 and has become more dominant in Chinese pig populations since 2016.
Using the G4 name, the researchers showed that the strain was the main influenza strain in the pig population they had tested in 2018 and can infect humans. About 10% of those exposed to the animals had antibodies against the strain.
But the virus has been in circulation since 2016 and still has to cause significant illnesses – and it is unclear whether it can do it at all. There is also no evidence that it has spread from person to person. For a pandemic to start, the virus must do both by taking in new genetic information. Could it happen? Yes. Should you panic?
Well, no. While current flu vaccines do not protect against this strain, the next batch could serve as protection if this virus reaches pandemic proportions. But that remains a big if.
Monitoring influenza strains provides epidemiologists and health officials with a valuable tool to examine vulnerable populations and better understand whether the virus is developing to become more virulent. The researchers suggest that G4 should be closely monitored in pigs and in human populations.
It's worth reading Twitter threads written by Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, and a similar thread by Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. Both break out where some of the misunderstandings come from, detailing the experiments and how they relate to the headlines.
"The bottom line is that our understanding of a potential pandemic influenza strain is limited," writes Rasmussen. "Sure, this virus meets many of the basic criteria, but it's not certain whether it will trigger a hypothetical flu pandemic in 2020 or even be a dominant strain in humans."
"Worth seeing for people in the field," notes Bergstrom. "No immediate public health threat."
Here, too, it is important to pull the curtain back a little. The journal PNAS, in which this work was published, sends the media a weekly list of embargo journal articles that will be published over the next seven days. This week's email referred to a study entitled "Swine flu virus with pandemic potential". It's a pretty eye-catching heading and not exactly wrong, but it was written to attract media interested in telling the story of the research.
And this is where part of the panic begins. The magazine article itself refers to the idea that pigs are particularly good "mixing vessels" for flu viruses, since they enable different strains of influenza to exchange genetic information with one another. These swaps can lead to viruses that are more likely to infect people and cause disease. It is the only reference to the "pandemic potential" mentioned in the publication.
The magazine article is located behind a paywall, so the full seven-page article is not freely accessible to the public. A similar situation occurred in May when a paid article was dredged by New Scientist to claim that NASA found a parallel universe in which time is running backwards. Spoiler:and we're stuck in this universe.
During the coronavirus pandemic, scientists, researchers, the media and the public had to deal with what the World Health Organization calls an "infodemic". An infodemic is an abundance of accurate and less accurate information that makes it extremely difficult to find trustworthy sources.
Would we have seen that the flu with the "pandemic potential" took up so much steam if we weren't already in a pandemic that turned everything upside down? My guess would be no.
Look at that:
How to follow the pandemic with online tools