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Scientists warn of pig pandemic

OTTAWA — German scientists are warning of a pig pandemic after tests suggested the swine flu can pass from humans to hogs and then infect a whole herd.

OTTAWA — German scientists are warning of a pig pandemic after tests suggested the swine flu can pass from humans to hogs and then infect a whole herd.

A team of virologists at Germany’s national animal health research lab recently infected five pigs with the human strain of the H1N1 virus and put the sick pigs in a room with three healthy pigs.

Within four days, all the pigs had the flu. All of them recovered.

A research paper to be published Friday in the Journal of General Virology warns “the high transmissibility of the virus observed in humans also applies to pigs.”

That increasingly puts pigs at risk as the virus spreads among humans.

“It must be assumed that this virus will spread fast and efficiently if introduced into swine farms, possibly establishing endemic infections,” the paper says.

“With the increasing numbers of human infections, a spillover of this virus to pigs is becoming more likely.”

There is no evidence pigs are passing the swine flu virus to humans, or that eating pork products poses an infection risk.

Dr. Thomas Vahlenkamp, who headed the team of virologists at Germany’s Friedrich Loeffler Institute, said the tests show how susceptible pigs are to the virus.

“We would not claim that the virus can easily be transmitted to pigs,” he said.

“But at least if the pig is infected, it can transmit it quite easily between pigs.”

The Canadian Pork Council says fears of a pig pandemic are overblown since the animals are kept away from people.

“It’s not like ... some of the other animals or livestock that are just out in a field,” spokesman Gary Stordy said.

“Since they are in enclosed structures with ventilation, there’s very minimal contact with unauthorized (people) or the general public. There’s generally very limited access to a farm just because of bio-security measures.”

This is not the first time researchers have shown pigs can catch the human strain of the H1N1 virus. British scientists ran similar tests in May with the same results.

But it’s believed the German scientists are the first to publish their findings in a scientific journal.

The Germans also added a twist to their experiment by throwing five chickens into the mix to see if the birds would catch the virus from the sick pigs. But the fowls stayed fit.

Researchers then tried to directly infect the chickens with the virus, to no avail.

“We don’t know whether chicken in general cannot catch the infection, but at least in our hands with this isolate from a German patient we could not infect chicken,” Vahlenkamp said in an email.

Canada is only one of two places where the pandemic virus has been found in pigs. The other is Argentina.

In April, swine flu appeared in pigs on an Alberta farm. At first, health officials thought a farmhand who had been to Mexico and fell ill upon his return infected the pigs. But blood tests showed the worker didn’t infect the herd.

The farmer who owned the pigs later culled his entire herd when he couldn’t sell the animals.