Pandemic's progress

Our scientific knowledge will ensure that the swine flu pandemic is no apocalypse.

The weeks since the world was jolted by the news that pandemic H1N1 - swine flu - had emerged in Mexico and was spreading have been strange. The initial panic and media frenzy were followed by an eerie hiatus, reminiscent of the lull that occurs in James Cameron's Titanic, between the great ship hitting the iceberg and later going down. Passengers emerge from the jolt shaken, but confident that their ship is unsinkable. At first. The crescendo of panic as the waters rise is a perfect depiction of fear.

In these days of instant news, many seemed surprised, even disappointed, that an apocalyptic pestilence hadn't killed us all by mid-May. People doubted the seriousness of pandemic flu. The virus, however, has spread in a largely predictable fashion - in fact, somewhat faster than expected in the UK, where flu transmission is usually limited in the summer months. At the time of writing, 29 people had died in the UK, British children had been quarantined in China, and confusing advice had been offered on how pregnant women should avoid the disease. Are we witnessing the beginnings of a second-phase panic? I hope not.

Recent figures point to a worst-case scenario of 65,000 possible UK deaths from the disease this winter. However, this forecast is based largely on statistics about the current epidemic combined with information about previous ones. We now have drugs, albeit weak ones, and new vaccines are due, and so it is doubtful that we will reach worst-case levels. There is less need to panic now than when those first reports emerged from Mexico in late April (and a huge fatality rate was erroneously reported in the initial blind panic).

The H1N1 flu vaccines should work, although problems could arise if the circulating viruses mutate. More alarming, perhaps, has been the relative speed of the virus's spread in the UK. Although the first batches of vaccine are likely to be ready by August, weeks, perhaps months, of efficacy and safety testing will be needed before large-scale inoculation can begin. I doubt whether serious vaccination campaigns will start much before October, by which time the numbers infected in the UK could be running into millions.

There is also talk that countries such as the UK, which have no capacity for manufacturing the flu vaccine, could find the supplies they have ordered seized within the countries of manufacture. This will probably trigger hundreds, if not thousands, of unnecessary deaths and will, of course, hit the economy as the workforce stays at home. We are certainly running tight. I still believe, however, that our knowledge of infection and capacity to intervene will ensure that the swine flu pandemic of 2009-2010, though serious, is no apocalypse.

Michael Barrett is professor of biochemical parasitology at the University of Glasgow

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right