Medical Examiner

Could We Really Have Another Pandemic at the Same Time as COVID?

Obviously, scientists should keep an eye on a new virus pigs are transmitting to humans. But it’s not a real cause for concern (yet).

A couple of pigs are seen up close.
These pigs are from a swine farm in Colombia, and they were photographed during the swine flu outbreak. Scientists are researching another virus with “pandemic potential” that pigs spread to humans. Raul Arboleda/Getty Images

There’s a new virus that could cause a pandemic. That’s according to a paper published this week, and much media coverage that strikes varying levels of alarm. Researchers found the virus, which is a variation of 2009’s swine flu, by testing pigs with nasal swabs in a program designed to keep an eye on new viruses from the animals. They also found antibodies against the virus in 10 percent of 338 people who work with pigs, from whom they took blood samples. Now, the virus is being referred to as having “pandemic potential.” What, exactly does that mean? We are here to explain.

Are we going to be in a second pandemic? During this pandemic?

There is no law against it, but probably not. For one thing, G4 EA H1N1, as it’s called, isn’t all that new. The survey of viruses in pigs ran from 2011–18; because science takes time (when it doesn’t involve an ongoing pandemic) the paper is just coming out now. “There’s no evidence that G4 is circulating in humans, despite five years of extensive exposure,” noted Carl T. Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington, on Twitter. “That’s the key context to keep in mind.” That is, while it might be hopping from pigs to humans, it doesn’t appear to be hopping from humans to humans. Also: There’s also no evidence it makes people sick.

So G4 is nothing?

No, that’s not true either. It’s important for scientists to be keeping an eye on potential viruses, particularly ones that could start a pandemic. Though the stories are “not describing an immediate threat to the general public,” as Bergstrom notes, the fact that this disease is spreading from pigs to humans is important to epidemiologists. It’s a version of H1N1, which did spread very easily, and we wouldn’t be immune to it if it did. “We need to be worried about any disease with the potential to spread human to human,” Li-Min Huang, an infectious disease expert in Taiwan, told the New York Times. The “we” there is only you and me only insofar as we should support politicians who support pandemic preparedness and fund scientific research in general. We don’t need to worry about this virus’s potential to make us sick right now—or even soon—though. “ ‘Pandemic potential’ needs to emphasize the ‘potential’ part,” tweeted Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia.

So it might be nothing?

Right. Maybe it is nothing. Maybe it does mutate and starts spreading among humans but turns out to be easy to include in the annual flu vaccine, Bergstrom notes, which changes year to year. Maybe, just maybe, it mutates and starts spreading between humans and is not easy to vaccinate against. Obviously, everyone in the entire world has very good reason to be on high alert toward this option, but that doesn’t make it any more likely.

One more thing: It’s easy to say that the current worry over the virus is due to clickbait headlines and journalism that is forced to run on an advertising model, as Bergstrom suggested. And, yes, the Daily Mail could be more nuanced in its copy. (If you think that, make sure to pay for your news.) But also, conveying risk is just really, really hard, and we’re currently all primed to pick up on the word pandemic and start screaming. Sort of a natural response given the circumstances, honestly.

Sorry, I’m still not over the time you said not to worry about the coronavirus that is currently absolutely destroying the fabric of our society and taking an unbearable number of lives.

It’s painful to look back at that early coverage, but in January, it was true that it seemed unlikely SARS-CoV-2 would spread around the globe the way it is now. We only now know how deeply unprepared the U.S. was to test people (or do much of anything), how easily people without symptoms can spread the virus, and how much these circumstances have changed our lives. It was always possible, but it was never inevitable. There’s also just some luck (hellish dice rolling?) involved in how bad a virus is; the original SARS ended up petering out for reasons that are still a little unclear.

Am I supposed to find that comforting?

Honestly, it’s probably better if we all realize we should be less lax about the risk of these types of things. Virus concern is something we probably would do well to live with for the rest of our lives. That’s not to say each of us is doing something productive when we panic about each virus that could maybe (maybe, maybe, maybe) wreak global havoc, but because as a society, we could probably benefit from a bit more preparedness overall. Investing in everything from hand-washing to stockpiling ventilators could serve us well in a variety of scenarios, from regular flu season all the way up to another pandemic. “We should prepare for ANY kind of emerging influenza pandemic,” tweeted Rassmusen.

I can’t believe we’re not out of this current pandemic and we already have to worry about another one.

It almost feels like it ought to be a relief to worry about something else, even a different virus, instead of the same fucking thing, but, yeah, pretty unbelievable!