New Mutant Strain Found in China Sparks Fear of Another Pandemic

By: Lauren Fokas | Last updated: Sep 29, 2023

A variation of avian influenza has been found in some Chinese poultry farms, and scientists are desperately studying the virus to find out just how much it can and will affect humans if it gets out.

So far, the research they’ve conducted shows that this version of the avian flu, known as H3N8, does have the capacity for human infection, and some worry that we could have another global pandemic ahead of us.

What is Avian Influenza?

For decades, the avian flu, or bird flu as it’s more commonly called, has been on the radar of scientists and medical professionals all around the world.


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The virus is most often contracted by chickens in poultry farms. When the chickens become infected, their symptoms include respiratory and digestive problems, usually followed by death. In order to stop the spread, some poultry farms have had to terminate their entire population and start again.

What Is H3N8?

As with any virus, the avian flu can and does mutate into other variations. Recently, scientists in China reported that their poultry farms do have a new adaptation of the flu they’re calling H3N8.


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While there have been several mutations of the virus over the years, the newly discovered H3N8 seems to be causing more concern than previous variations.

Analysis of H3N8

Researchers in China and the UK have dedicated a significant amount of time to understanding the H3N8 strain. One of their most important findings is that the virus can be transmitted through animals via the air they breathe.


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Professor Jinhua Liu of the China Agricultural University in Beijing stated, “Importantly, we discovered that the virus had acquired human receptor binding preference and amino acid substitution PB2-E627K, which are necessary for airborne transmission.”

Studying the Virus in Mammals

Studies have been conducted on lab mice and ferrets in order to better understand how the H3N8 virus will affect humans as opposed to chickens, and they’ve noticed that the symptoms are extremely similar.


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Professor Kin-Chow Chang from the University of Nottingham in England told the press that during these studies, the virus “was extremely harmful in its effects in laboratory mammalian hosts.” Just like the chickens, many of the mice and ferrets experienced extreme respiratory distress and even death.

How Does H3N8 Affect Humans?

These scientists have also found that the H3N8 virus affects human lungs just as it does our animal friends. Professor Chang stated, “We demonstrate[d] that an avian H3N8 virus isolated from a patient with severe pneumonia replicated effectively in human bronchial and lung epithelial cells.”

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According to the research, if a person does contract H3N8, essentially they will likely experience “acute respiratory distress syndrome” and maybe even death.


H3N8 Can Be Caught Through Airborne Transmission

Professor Liu from Beijing explained, “Importantly, we discovered that the virus had acquired human receptor binding preference and amino acid substitution PB2-E627K, which are necessary for airborne transmission.”

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However, she wants to make it clear that although the virus has developed the amino acid necessary to make it transmissible through the air, it has not yet developed the acid resistance to “overcome to acquire the adaptability and transmissibility in new mammals of humans.” This means that it cannot yet be transmitted from animals to humans through the air.


Should People Be Worried About H3N8?

At this moment, the scientists studying the H3N8 virus are concerned but not panicking. However, one of their main concerns is that even those vaccinated against other similar strains don’t seem to be immune to this specific variation.

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“Human populations, even when vaccinated against human H3N2 virus, appear immunologically naive to emerging mammalian-adapted H3N8 avian influenza viruses and could be vulnerable to infection at epidemic or pandemic proportions,” reported Professor Liu.


Can H3N8 Be Spread By Eating Chicken?

It’s crucial to understand that humans cannot contract the H3N8 virus through eating an infected chicken.

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The reason why poultry farms are disposing of chickens with the virus is because they cannot risk contaminating other chickens, not because they pose a threat to human safety. Essentially, if the chickens are not ready to be butchered for meat, they are simply killed in order to ensure the new and healthy chickens don’t get sick.


Is a Chicken Shortage on the Horizon?

Although in China several poultry farms have had to dispose of their stock of chickens due to the H3N8 avian influenza, it’s not enough yet to actually affect the chicken supply in the country, and certainly not around the world.

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But that being said, if the poultry farmers are unable to get the virus under control in the near future, it could mean that the price of chicken would increase significantly in China.


Could H3N8 Be the Next Global Pandemic?

Professor Kin-Chow Chang did say during their experiments with mice that the virus “could be passed on through respiratory droplets,” meaning H3N8 is transmissible through the air we breathe.

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So while scientists don’t currently believe that H3N8 has the capacity to spread around the world (mostly because it lacks a certain acid resistance to do so), they are saying that it’s completely possible in the near future.


Scientists Don’t Want to Ignite Panic

Although scientists in China and the UK are attentive to the fact that H3N8 could become dangerous for humans, for now, they don’t want people to worry.

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Because humans cannot contract the flu mutation from eating chicken, it’s unlikely that anyone not working on a poultry farm could contract the disease right now. However, it is possible that it will mutate once again, so scientists are keeping a close eye on it.