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According to a study published in the US science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers in China have identified a novel strain of swine flu, named G4, that is powerful enough to trigger another pandemic

The genetic descendent from the H1N1 strain, which triggered a pandemic in 2009 that infected as many as 1.4 billion people across the globe and killed between 151 700 and 575 400 people, contains all of the key properties of being extremely attuned to infect humans, says the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC published a review in early July stating that ‘at this stage the G4 virus has not caused a rise in the risks of a pandemic compared to the past’. It adds however, that ‘reassortment and mutation of influenza viruses is common and they can cause a pandemic. At this moment there is no way to predict when, how or from where new influenza viruses will cause a pandemic’. 

How Was G4 Discovered?

Starting in 2011, researchers extracted approximately 30 000 nasal swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses across 10 Chinese provinces and in a veterinary hospital in order to isolate potential viruses. From these extractions in China, 179 swine flu viruses were discovered, with the majority recognised as novel types primarily prevalent among pigs since 2016. It was noted that the G4 strain resulted from the reassortment of numerous viruses, including the 2009 H1N1 strain.

In order to examine pig-to-human disease transmission, the researchers conducted numerous experiments on animals- primarily on ferrets- in order to observe and identify early onset symptoms. These examinations revealed that prior immunity acquired from previous exposure to a seasonal flu did not safeguard affected subjects against the G4 virus. 

Upon analysis of antibodies in blood tests taken from 230 members of the Chinese public and 338 swine industry workers, 4.4% and 10.4% respectively were shown to have already been infected- highlighting the possibility of G4 being transmitted between animals and humans. However, the researchers have made it clear that there is a lack of evidence to prove the possibility of human-to-human transmission. It is therefore vital that further research is conducted to obtain enough information to prevent another potential global pandemic. 

The Threat of Factory Farming 

Such a discovery demonstrates that the threat of zoonotic pathogens is ever-looming, and that farmed animals are ideal incubators of novel strains of viruses that are capable of infecting humans. Though the trade and consumption of wildlife have been banned in China, the role that factory farming has in introducing infectious diseases to animals and humans alike, such as swine flu, is equally concerning. 

Pause the System, a local British environmentalist group, emphasise the need for governments to confront the livestock factory farming industry and to tackle the adverse effects that coincide with it- in this case, a potential pandemic. Members of the group explain that factory farming is a perfect breeding ground for diseases and infections as the tight proximity of animals, in combination with the widespread practice of injecting antibiotics into the animals, creates an optimal environment for antibiotic-resistant pathogens to emerge and replicate.

Antibiotics ensure that livestock remain healthy and well, whilst enabling them to extract greater amounts of energy from their food in order to achieve sizable growth. This common procedure in the industry is profit-oriented as it maximises the yield of meat available for trade. Though efficient in this regard, the practice of antibiotic use in factory farming can be extremely detrimental due to the impact it has on the health of workers and consumers . 

What Can Be Done?

Experts encourage close monitoring of swine workers as well as people in close proximity to such workers to observe how the G4 virus is continuing to evolve. 

Furthermore, researchers suggest that intensive factory farming should be ended, while investments into more sustainable sources of protein should be encouraged in order to circumvent another public health emergency.

Advocating for the public to implement more plant-based products into their diets may help decrease the demand for animal products, and thus factory farming. This can be achieved by increasing global awareness and advertising the many benefits of a vegan diet.

Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) top influenza expert during the plight of H1N1 in 2009, suggests that the development of a potential vaccine for the G4 would be of great benefit, noting that early investment in a cure could help overcome future complications.   

2020 has so far seen swarms of locusts invading parts of East Africa, decimating crops and threatening food security, as well as bats in Australia, threatening the population with diseases. Is the climate crisis exacerbating these occurrences? 

Thousands of bats have invaded the town of Ingham in Queensland, Australia. The swarms of bats now outnumber the human population by thousands, creating fear among the town’s inhabitants; bats can cause lyssavirus, a rabies-like disease caused through bites and scratches. The town wants to get rid of the bats, however they are protected under Queensland law. 

Bats are known to carry many diseases, such as Ebola, SARS, MERS and the Marburg virus. While the animal acts as a natural reservoir for the illnesses, they do not get infected themselves. This is because the body temperature of the bat is maintained at around 40 degrees Celsius, too high for the viruses to activate. Scientists that have conducted research on the special immunity system of the bat have documented that some species can live up to 40 years, rare for an animal of its size. 

Because they can fly, bats are found all around the world and are able to adapt to both tropical and temperate climates. They reproduce quickly and it is estimated that one in five mammals are bats. 

Bats rarely spread viruses directly to humans, but can do so through biting. Most of the time however, they need an intermediate host. For example, it has been found that the masked palm civet was the intermediate host of the SARS outbreak in China and camels were found to be the intermediate host of the MERS virus in the Middle East. 

However, culling bats is not the answer. Bats are important pollinators in the tropics; many fruit tree species such as the durian have a specific species of bat as a pollinator. Bats are also an important keystone species that control the population of insects. 

The Implications of Climate Change for Bats

Researchers in Australia are still investigating the unusually large swarms of bats in Ingham. One hypothesis posits that the bats are looking for a suitable habitat to set up their colony after theirs was destroyed in the bush fires. 

How the Climate Crisis Exacerbates Harmful Swarms of Animals
An illustration showing the relationship between animals and humans in the spreading of viruses (Source: WhatsOrb.com).

Meanwhile, swarms of locusts invading East Africa have spread south to Uganda and Tanzania, threatening the already-fragile region’s population who already suffer from malnutrition with further food insecurity. Farmers and authorities have used drones and motorised sprayers to mass spray crops with pesticides, which are harmful to people. Additionally, insects could evolve to become pesticide-resistant. Farmers should rather use biopesticides such as fungus and bacteria, which are as effective but less harmful to humans. 

Climate scientists have said that unusually heavy rains brought by a cyclone off Somalia in December caused the deserts of Oman to become wetter than usual, conditions which provide favourable breeding grounds for locusts. This causes the usually solitary form of locust, the grasshopper, to develop group behaviour. This process, called ‘gregarisation’, is triggered by the signalling of pheromones from physical contact of each individual grasshopper. 

This change from solitary to group behaviour usually follows a period of drought and vegetation flushes after periods of rainfall. The locusts reproduce very quickly and a single swarm can span up to 1 200 square kilometres and can contain more than 80 million locusts per square kilometre. 

As the climate changes, weather patterns have become less predictable. In East Africa, there is usually one cyclone that makes landfall each year but there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of the cyclones in the Indian Ocean. This change in precipitation may lead to more frequent locust invasions. 

Another factor contributing to increasing locust invasions is the reduction of the natural enemies of locusts, such as wasps, birds, reptiles and bats. This is due to deforestation and habitat destruction in East Africa. 

Meanwhile, a study in Europe has shown that insect populations have significantly declined by up to 80% in two decades in what is being called an ‘insect apocalypse’. The study looks at the number of insects hitting car registration plates, called the ‘splatometer’. This method is able to sample the number of insects in a large geographical range. 

The study coincides with the significant decline in worker bee populations observed around the world. The overuse of pesticides and destruction of habitats are the main causes for the reduction in insect numbers. Insects, especially bees, serve a vital ecological function for humans, including pest control and pollination. More diversity of insects means that ecosystems are better able to withstand external pressure. 

As we have entered the Holocene Extinction period, also known as the Anthropocene Extinction period, the number of species becoming extinct due to human activity is predicted to increase. It will eventually reach a tipping point and cause a cascade effect, further disturbing ecosystems and increasing the likelihood of swarms of animals invading regions. 

Featured image by: Adam Baker

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