The flu which is carried by pigs but can infect humans could spread easily from person to person, and trigger a global outbreak.
Named G4 EA H1N1, the virus is similar to the swine flu that caused a pandemic in 2009 and possesses “all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus”, according to the authors of the study.
Scientists at Chinese universities and China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) detected the new virus after analysing 30,000 nasal swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses in 10 Chinese provinces between 2011 and 2018.
As it’s new, people could have little or no immunity to the virus.
The scientists write in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that measures to control the virus in pigs, and the close monitoring of swine industry workers, should be swiftly implemented.
The researchers say the flu can grow and multiply in the cells that line the human airways.
They found evidence of recent infection in people who worked in abattoirs and the swine industry in China when they looked at data from 2011 to 2018.
Current flu vaccines do not appear to protect against it, although they could be adapted to do so if needed.
Prof Kin-Chow Chang, who works at Nottingham University in the UK, told the BBC: “Right now we are distracted with coronavirus and rightly so. But we must not lose sight of potentially dangerous new viruses.”
While this new virus is not an immediate problem, he says: “We should not ignore it.”
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