What are the chances of a flu pandemic?
We may have barely recovered from Covid, but it seems the government is already preparing for the possibility of a flu pandemic.
The UK Health Security Agency (UHKSA) has just announced a new UK-based vaccine deal meant to improve pandemic preparedness against a viral flu infection.
It means the UK can access more than 100 million vaccines if such a pandemic ever appears, and the jab would be manufactured in the UK for stability.
But just how likely is it that we’ll see flu pandemic anytime soon? Here’s what we know so far.
What is pandemic influenza?
First things first – influenza is not like coronavirus.
As the World Health Organisation explains, they are both respiratory diseases, and spread via droplets and aerosols – meaning the same protective measures are effective against them both.
Similar groups are also vulnerable to both diseases, although antibiotics are not effective for either.
Symptoms of both can be lessened with vaccines beforehand.
However, the treatment for Covid and the treatment for flu are very different.
And, crucially, people can be asymptomatic with Covid, meaning they can spread it without any noticeable symptoms – that’s part of why it was so hard to tackle.
The UKHSA has also explained that pandemic flu that it is not the same as seasonal influenza or avian influenza.
Seasonal flu goes round every year and causes thousands of deaths, but it usually causes a more mild illness among healthy adults because of existing immunity.
Avian influenza, on the other hand, cannot be passed from human to human.
To have a new influenza strain with the potential to become a pandemic, it would have to be detected globally and transmit from person to person.
We’d also have to have no immunity to it already for it to be categorised by the World Health Organisation as a pandemic.
The UKHSA says: “Although influenza pandemics are highly unpredictable in terms of their timing, duration and severity, historic events show that they can occur at any time.”
Have we ever had a flu pandemic before?
Yes, four times in just the last 100 years.
The most well-known outbreak was probably the 1918 Spanish flu, which triggered up to 50 million deaths around the world, according to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s website.
Then in 1957, the Asian flu broke out, where between one to two million people died, according to Britannica encyclopedia.
In 1968, it was the Hong Kong flu, where there were between one and four million deaths, Britannica explains.
How likely is it we will have another flu pandemic soon?
It’s impossible to predict what might happen next, especially with something like flu.
However, the latest National Risk Register published by the government earlier this year explained that experts think a respiratory pathogen to be the most likely cause of a future pandemic.
That is based on the emergence of pandemics since 1900.
In fact, in October 2008, the US’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said it was “not a matter of IF but WHEN”, although the experts added, “we cannot predict when the next flu pandemic will happen”.
In March 2019 – months before the Covid outbreak – director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “The threat of pandemic influenza is ever-present.
“The ongoing risk of a new influenza virus transmitting from animals to humans and potentially causing a pandemic is real.
“The question is not if we will have another pandemic, but when. We must be vigilant and prepared – the cost of a major influenza outbreak will far outweigh the price of prevention.”
It is one of the world’s greatest public health challenges, with an estimated one billion cases – three to five million of which are severe, according to WHO.
How do we prepare for a flu pandemic?
WHO recommends annual flu jabs as the most effective means to prevent a flu pandemic at the moment.
But it also suggests every country needs to build stronger capacities for disease surveillance and response, prevention, control and preparedness along with developing better tools to prevent, detect, control and treat a disease like flu.
Even so, Dr Tedros said in 2019, “we are still not prepared enough.”
Despite that, at the start of the ongoing public Covid inquiry, former government officials were asked if they felt they had been preparing for the wrong pandemic when Covid struck.
David Cameron, PM between 2010 and 2016, said there emphasis had been on a “pandemic flu” at the time.
He acknowledged the “regret” is that “more questions weren’t asked about the sort of pandemic that we faced”, one of asymptomatic, highly infectious transmission like Covid.
Minister for government policy during this time, Oliver Letwin, also admitted that it was “ludicrous” to believe there were enough antibiotics for non-flu pandemics.
Meanwhile, the government has already been drawing attention to something called Disease X, the placeholder name for the next large infection which could impact most of the world. This could be a virus, a fungus, or a bacteria.
A team of more than 200 scientists are working in a secretive, high-security lab, called Porton Down in Wiltshire, run by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on a “100 Days mission”.
It’s part of a global effort to create a vaccine within 100 days of a new pathogen which could trigger a pandemic – which would be a world first.