Swine Flu is Related to Virus Born on U.S. Hog Factories in 1998

Factory farming and long-distance live animal transport apparently led to the emergence of the ancestors of the current swine flu threat.

| May 3, 2009


Dr. Michael Greger is the director of public health and animal agriculture for  The Humane Society of the United States , as well as the author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching. Here's what he has to say about swine flu (H1N1) and the role of factory farms in it's evolution and spread.

Factory farming and long-distance live animal transport apparently led to the emergence of the ancestors of the current swine flu threat. A preliminary analysis of the H1N1 swine flu virus isolated from human cases in California and Texas reveals that six of the eight viral gene segments arose from North American swine flu strains circulating since 1998, when a new strain was first identified on a factory farm in North Carolina.

This genetic fingerprint, first released by Columbia University’s Center for Computation Biology and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton,[1] has now been reportedly confirmed by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital and virologist Ruben Donis, chief of the molecular virology and vaccines branch at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Robert Webster, the director of the U.S. Collaborating Center of the World Health Organization, and considered the "godfather of flu research,"[2] is reported as saying "The triple reassortant in pigs [first discovered in the U.S. in 1998] seems to be the precursor."

Plaguing People and Pigs

The worst plague in human history was triggered by an H1N1 avian flu virus, which jumped the species barrier from birds to humans[3] and went on to kill as many as 50 to 100 million people in the 1918 flu pandemic.[4] We then passed the virus to pigs, where it has continued to circulate, becoming one of the most common causes of respiratory disease on North American pig farms.[5]



In August 1998, however, a barking cough resounded throughout a North Carolina pig factory in which all the thousands of breeding sows fell ill.[6] A new swine flu virus was discovered on that factory farm, a human-pig hybrid virus that had picked up three human flu genes. By the end of that year, the virus acquired two gene segments from bird flu viruses as well, becoming a never-before-described triple reassortment virus — a hybrid of a human virus, a pig virus and a bird virus — that triggered outbreaks in Texas, Minnesota and Iowa.[7] 

Within months, the virus had spread throughout the United States. Blood samples taken from 4,382 pigs across 23 states found that 20.5 percent tested positive for exposure to this triple hybrid swine flu virus by early 1999, including 100 percent of herds tested in Illinois and Iowa, and 90 percent in Kansas and Oklahoma.[8] According to the current analysis, performed at the Columbia University's Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, it is from this pool of viruses that the current swine flu threat derives three-quarters of its genetic material.[9]






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