Hollywood loves a good pandemic. Whether it's 28 Days Later, Quarantine or I Am Legend, the high-drama plot of a deadly infection is hardly a new concept. But does real life bear comparison to such storylines? Are we being treated to yet another drab sequel?
Looks like we about to find out. Again. News sources are bubbling with reports of a new Bird Flu threat, a potential superstrain of the virus that has apparently emerged from poultry in China. Infection was first observed in an isolated case in Shanghai on the 19th February this year, although reported infections have since soured and authorities notified on the 1st April (when number of reported infections totalled 28). The virus in question, the H7N9 strain of influenza, is believed to originate in chickens but is likely carried by other poultry. It has now mutated to the point it can affect mammals, with some scientists suggesting widespread human infection is now inevitable. So we should fear for our lives, right?
Not so fast. The reality is that we just don't know enough to make any conclusions. Here's what we know as of today (25 April):
- the H7N9 virus was found only in chickens, ducks and pigeons and previously was not considered transmissable to humans
- scientists do not know how it is being transmitted to humans
- so far, there are 109 official cases of H7N9 (those that have sought medical treatment and tested positive)
- 23 of these have died (21%)
- half of those infected reported no contact with live poultry
The reality is that we have little information about this disease. Thus, any firm conclusions provided to you by 'experts' will be just speculation. We do not know if the virus has mutated so that human-to-human infection becomehs possible. We do not know if this will occur in the near future. We do not know how long the incubation period is.
All we have is historical precedents. Luckily, we have plenty of those. The Bubonic Plague of 1665, the Spanish Flu of 1918, and Hong Kong Flu of 1968 all come to mind. I am far too youthful to have first hand memories of any of these, but fondly remember the 'first' Bird Flu. It was Autumn 2006, and news channels informed us of our impending doom and inundated us with images of worried Chinese citizens shuffling down streets with facemasks. As the people became increasingly worried, Governments around the world told us that 150m of us would die; luckily, they spent hundreds of millions on a huge supply of Tamiflu and Relenza to protect us.
And then nothing happened. But we didn't dwell on the fact that many of the politicians involved in the scaremongering and the purchase of these pharmaceutical products actually had shares in the companies that profited; we were just happy to be alive.
Then there was Swine Flu, the much-hyped sequel that hit the news in 2009. Bigger, scarier and this time partially set in the UK. Fear raged as it became clear that H1N1 was now airborne and transmissable between humans. It was the world possible scenario; the World Health Organisation declared it a 'Level 6' pandemic (the highest alert possible). The CDC in America warned of 'cytokine storms' and drew parrallels with the killer outbreak of a similar virus in 1918. But not everyone was convinced; I wrote this article on May 13th, when Britain was gripped by fear of swine flu. The virus stayed in the news for quite some weeks, the UK government transferred another few hundred million taxpayer pounds to the drug companies for more Tamiflu and then, as the audience could no longer watch, the expected apocalypse simply never came.
In the aftermath, we found out that the same scientists who pushed the panic alarm at the WHO were receiving kickbacks from the manufacturers of the vaccines. We discovered that the symptoms of swine flu were actually no different to 'normal flu' and that the fatality rate was actually half that of it's regular cousin. It transpired that the reality was nothing like the hype. In short, everything happened exactly as I said it would. Except I predicted that the next 'animal flu' scare would hit in 2012 to tie in with the expiry date of Tamiflu vaccines, and we are four months into 2013 (forgive me).
So what do I expect this time? Well, we do not have sufficient information right now to accurately predict the behaviour of the virus, but predicting human behaviour is much easier. Those will financial or political interests will exploit these ruthlessly, as usual. Recently-expired stockpiles of vaccines will be replenished with due haste with the taxpayer picking up the bill, as usual. Expect the WHO to continue their usual rhetoric although, with fresh memories of the backlash they received for scaremongering in 2009, the warnings may come in a slightly more subtle tone.
Either way, the party has started. At this point, data is very scant, prompting the WHO's Keiji Fukuda to cautiously comment: "We think this virus is more easily transmitted from poultry to humans than H5N1," but then, hilariously, "this is definitely one of the most lethal influenza viruses that we have seen so far." Incredible that no-one yet knows how it's transmitted, what it's fatality rate is, why 109 people have so far become infected while those around them appear immune, yet the WHO are already content that this is unquestionably a blockbuster infection.
Just wait until the virus makes it out of China and Taiwan and into nearby countries. That's when the spin will go into overdrive and the news will be dominated by serious-looking professor types who will use lots of long words to convey the same basic message: that there is no actual evidence that humanity is in danger, but we should all be scared and that we should all be getting vaccinated. Especially the young, old, chronically ill, stressed, pregnant, those thinking about becoming pregnant, those who live in cities, those who live in the countryside, those that use mobile phones, etc etc. You get the picture.
One thing we are not likely to get is a comparison to the normal flu. If this was done with either Bird Flu I or Swine Flu, no-one would have been in the slightest bit scared. 300 deaths from Swine Flu in 2009 sounds bad, until you realise that around 11 people per day die from 'normal' flu. The golden rule is this: if you hear someone spouting death rates of Bird Flu II without rationalising this against those of normal flu, then they are scare-mongering.
So unless you hear qualified and reliable statistics that this virus is more transmissable or deadly that good old-fashioned seasonal flu, my advice is to ignore it all. Maybe, just maybe, this will be the end of humanity (if so, look for me at St Peter's gates... I will be the one with red cheeks). But almost certainly, absolutely nothing will happen. Except our Governments will pour another few hundred million pounds into another stockpile of redundant vaccines. Like most Hollywood sequels, this 'pandemic' will only be about the money. And, like always, a total anti-climax. Hopefully the next one will be better - coming to a news channel near you, spring 2017.