New Swine Flu Emerging From China Has Characteristics Of 2009 H1N1 Outbreak, 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee
Kevin Dietsch-Pool / Getty Images

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist who has become the public face of the nation’s battle against the coronavirus, says that a new strain of swine flu that appears to be emerging in China bears similarities to the 2009 H1N1 outbreak and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

As CNBC reported, though for the past several months almost all of the attention in the infectious disease community has been put on the COVID-19 pandemic, other contagious illnesses are still an issue. And a new one looming on the horizon appears to be emerging from China.

Specifically, health officials are keeping a close eye on a pathogen that is spreading among pigs. “G4 EA H1N1,” as it’s officially known, hasn’t yet shown the potential to infect humans, but the organism does appear to be showing “reassortment capabilities.”

In other words, says Fauci, it could yet mutate into a disease that infects humans.

“When you get a brand-new virus that turns out to be a pandemic virus it’s either due to mutations and/or the reassortment or exchanges of genes,” he said.

He then added that history has shown that viruses that emerged in pigs can mutate to the point that they infect humans, and that in such cases, the consequences can be devastating. Specifically, he pointed to the 2009 H1N1 outbreak and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

Nurses care for victims of a Spanish influenza epidemic outdoors amidst canvas tents during an outdoor fresh air cure, Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1918 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 2009, the swine flu pandemic emerged from Mexico and soon spread across the globe, resulting in a number of deaths ranging between 150,000-250,000, including an estimated 12,000 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The Spanish Flu raged across the globe in 1918 and killed between 30-50 million people, by some estimates, including an estimated 675,000 in the U.S., according to the CDC. By comparison, as of this writing COVID-19 is believed to have killed an estimated 128,000 people in the U.S.

Both outbreaks were caused by strains of the same pathogen: the H1N1 virus, which is now seen as just one of many seasonal flu viruses that come and go every few years.

The reportedly new Chinese pig virus appears to have all of the hallmarks of similar viruses that caused pandemics, and Fauci warned that this one could, indeed, cause the next pandemic.

However, he cautioned that it’s early in the outbreak and that officials, for now, are merely keeping an eye on things.

“[It’s not] an immediate threat where you’re seeing infections, but it’s something we need to keep our eye on, just the way we did in 2009 with the emergence of the Swine Flu,” he said.