China downplays G4 threat: ‘Humans not easily infected’

South African biosecurity specialist warns farmers to rather err on the side of caution

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While South Africa’s top coronavirus adviser expects the number of covid-19 infections in the country to exceed a million, scientists are also keeping a close eye on a strain of swine flu that has the potential to trigger another pandemic.

This follows global outrage after a study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) noted that the virus, named G4, has “all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus”. Now, however, China’s ministry of agriculture and rural affairs has rubbished this study, saying that the virus is not new and does not infect or sicken humans and animals easily.

The World Health Organisation and Chinese agencies have been monitoring the G4 virus since 2011, with China’s agricultural ministry adding that the media has, instead, interpreted the PNAS study “in an exaggerated and nonfactual way”.

‘Great need for disinfection of farms’

Elizna Erasmus, a biosecurity specialist from Bupo Animal Health. Photo: Supplied

A South African biosecurity specialist, Elizna Erasmus from Bupo Animal Health, warns, though, that farmers should rather err on the side of caution. This includes keeping new, incoming animals away from existing herds to mitigate the risk of possible infection. Regular and thorough inspection of fences are also recommended.

She warns that any animal that enters the farm poses a threat to livestock and may be a carrier of zoonotic diseases. Making sure that animals are vaccinated against diseases prevalent in the immediate area therefore remains vital.

“There is a great need for the disinfection of farms and the use of products that cater for all your disinfection purposes, whether it be disinfection against viral, bacterial or fungal diseases,” the biosecurity specialist says, adding that farmers should ensure that staff and animals are immunised against zoonotic diseases that present possible transmission risks.

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“These transmissions can occur in various ways, including contact with sick animals or the consumption of infected animals,” she says, explaining that diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans are known as zoonotic or zoonosis.

Guidelines to minimise disease outbreaks

There are, however, various guidelines in place for farmers to use to minimise disease outbreaks for both humans and animals. Erasmus says that by employee standardised health and safety measures, these measures can reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases being transmitted over to the human population and possibly cause a pandemic such as covid-19.

“What farmers cannot do, is change the pathogen that exists within an environment.” – Elizna Erasmus

Erasmus says, however, there are various guidelines in place for farmers to use to minimise disease outbreaks for both humans and animals.

Meanwhile studies indicate that the G4 virus genetically descends from the H1N1 virus that caused nearly 575 400 fatalities worldwide in 2009. Researchers at Shandong Agricultural University and the Chinese National Influenza Center discovered the G4 strain of the virus during a pig observation programme, reportedly after collecting nasal samples from pigs at abattoirs and veterinary training facilities. Between 2011 and 2018, over 30 000 samples were collected, and from this, 179 swine flu viruses were detected by scientists.

“Our understanding of what is a potential pandemic influenza strain is limited,” tweeted by Dr Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Colombia University. She continues to assure the public that, “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”.

Where none of these might have shown any risks, the G4 virus was recurring and infected pigs. Researchers report that there was a steady incline infection rate after 2016. The G4 virus binds with human cells and receptors, resulting in fast replication in airway cells. Though genetically descendant from the H1N1 virus, those who have received seasonal flu vaccines will not have any immunity.

A biology professor at the University of Washington in the United States, Carl Bergstrom, tweeted that this is not a new virus and has been very common in pigs since 2016. He too warned that people do not break out in a panic.

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