UCL News


Message from 1918: flu can kill millions

21 February 2006

The three pandemics in the past century were all linked with a strain of bird flu that had adapted to humans.

Now we have the H5N1 avian flu virus, which has already infected a number of species, including domestic poultry, pigs and humans. So far the virus has not spread between people. But as the 'viral load' on the planet soars, the danger is that the virus will mutate or infect a human already infected with flu, and then mix with the human influenza virus. …

The Department of Health is stockpiling the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu and has talked of ordering pandemic flu vaccine for the whole of the population. The official line is that a pandemic flu vaccine will become available between four and six months after a pandemic flu virus emerges. Sir William Stewart, chairman of the Health Protection Agency, claims Britain's preparedness plan "is among the best".

But not everyone is convinced. "Having read the very bland, 137-page UK pandemic plan and the equally bland guide for citizens, I do not feel these address the detailed needs well" says Professor Peter Dunnill [UCL Biochemical Engineering]. Six years ago, he warned the DoH that "we would not be in any better state and might be worse than in the 1918 pandemic". Today, after lobbying the science minister and the Prime Minister's chief scientist, he still believes that there are holes in the Government's strategy.

The first line of defence is Tamiflu. But a review published this year in 'The Lancet' could find no credible evidence of the effects of Tamiflu-style drugs on avian influenza (though the paper has its critics). Resistance has already been noted and a study by a leading American team found that animals infected with H5NI required high doses of drugs for eight days, not the standard five. Professor Dunnill estimates that the proposed stock might treat much less than the Government's target of 25 per cent of the population. …

Even if all the seasonal flu facilities worldwide make pandemic vaccine, Professor Dunnill estimates that only 75 million people out of the 6.5 billion global population can be protected. Even with a booster, or adjuvant, the figure rises to only 225 million. Against this background, promises to acquire vaccine for Britain's 60 million citizens raise eyebrows. Even the British Vaccination Industry Group has suggested it could not cope.

Roger Highfield, 'The Daily Telegraph', 21 February 2006