s COVID-19 continues to spread through our world and culture, new impacts from the pandemic are being revealed —even when it comes to other viruses. In late June, a publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science described an emerging H1N1 virus found around pig factory workers in China. Described as the G4 Swine Flu, this virus bears “the essential hallmarks of being highly adapted to infect humans” and is a pandemic concern. However, lessons learned from COVID-19 and the specifics of this G4 Swine Flu have researchers saying we’re well-positioned to overcome.
“As a general population, a lot of lessons are being learned. We’re pulling back the veil on just how important infectious disease is to who lives and dies. It’s a big chunk of the human story,” said professor Michael Worobey, head of the University of Arizona’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “In terms of learning the lessons to prevent a debacle we’re experiencing in the U.S. and Arizona right now, it involves investment.”
A fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, Worobey traces the evolution of major communicable diseases, and has detailed the origins and spread of HIV, the 1918 Spanish Flu and the 2009 Swine Flu.
As with many pandemics, including the current strain of coronavirus, G4 Swine Flu infections trace back to the meat industry. An estimated 10 percent of pork industry workers tested positive for the flu, especially those aged 18 to 35. While the virus has proven capable of moving from animal to human, there is no evidence yet of human-to-human infections. Worobey says that in the grand scheme of potential flu viruses, this latest H1N1 strain is “less serious” for multiple reasons.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we all possess a reasonable amount of immunity against these viruses because of our exposure to other H1N1 viruses,” Worobey said, indicating how the G4 Swine Flu has a very similar structure to the 2009 Swine Flu. “I wouldn’t call it an emerging human virus by any means yet… I don’t think there’s any evidence of high pathogenicity.”
Worobey points out how our medical history is key in protecting against future outbreaks; the first infection we get as children sets up our immune system to be resistant to those same types of viruses. In this case, the most at-risk population—older folks—were exposed to H1N1 early on, as it was one of the main viruses circulating from the ’20s through the ’50s.
“Anyone born before 1957 has exposure that they’ve locked in from when they were a kid that they can then draw on when they’re infected with a new virus that is nevertheless related,” Worobey said. “In this case, it’s reassuring that the population that you would be most worried about, actually because of their childhood exposure, has a really good chance of a strong, protective immune response.”
COVID-19 is the most globally disruptive event since World War II, which provides an opportunity to prepare for future pandemics considering the process of sanitization, masking and social distancing is already on everyone’s minds. However, Worobey says being further prepared for a similar outbreak requires significant but necessary investments.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that we haven’t invested the billions of dollars—which sounds like a lot of money until you compare it to the tens of trillions of dollars and millions of lives impacted from this pandemic—to put together the kind of surveillance systems that could have protected the U.S. from the virus in the way South Korea, Iceland and Australia were able to,” Worobey said. “The future is investing in the things that will protect us from this sort of disaster that is now so horribly impacting all of us… The coronavirus we’re fighting right now really is a black swan, and although it’s good to be prepared, you can also be hopeful that we’re not going to see something like this for a long time. And the next time we do, we could be very, very much better prepared.”