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'We need to be alert' - Virologist says new flu virus in China needs to be monitored closely

A virus expert is urging people to remain alert, but not alarmed after it was revealed yesterday a new flu virus in China posed a risk of another pandemic.

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Otago University evolutionary biologist and virologist Jemma Geoghegan said the illness in pigs needed to be monitored closely. Source: Breakfast

The new virus is similar to the H1N1 swine flu which swept the world in 2009, according to the paper published yesterday in the journal PNAS.

However unlike the swine flu, the current influenza vaccine doesn't appear to cover the newly identified virus G4 EA H1N1 and people don't have immunity for it - although the flu vaccine could be adapted if necessary.

Otago University evolutionary biologist and virologist Dr Jemma Geoghegan told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning the illness in pigs needed to be monitored closely though.

"This is a new influenza virus that's been found in pigs and, since about 2016 when it was first detected, the virus has been increasing in frequency and now it's the most frequent virus that's found in these pigs," she said.

"Clearly it can infect human cells, and in fact there has been a couple of cases in humans, however this virus hasn't been able to be transmitted between humans so those human cases are sort of dead end, spill over infections.

"So we don't think this virus is something to overly worry about just yet, but we need to be hyper vigilant and really monitor this  closely."

Dr Geoghegan said viruses such as this one were "poised to emerge in humans", adding that pigs were mammals with similar cells to humans.

However, she added: "To be a pandemic, I guess, a virus needs to first be able to infect human cells, which clearly this virus does, but importantly it needs to be transmissible between humans and at the moment we don't think this virus is.

"At the moment we need to be alert to the virus but not alarmed."

Dr Geoghegan said the Covid-19 pandemic has brought more attention to this new flu virus, but she said it was a good thing to be alert to the risks of pandemics before they emerge in humans.