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Experts say swine flu picture is 'classic'

Susan Watts | 09:00 UK time, Thursday, 30 April 2009


It feels as if this is all moving very fast. But the experts tell me that the way the swine flu picture is unfolding is "classic", with all the signs of the pandemic they've been expecting for years now.

Within the space of a few days the virus has spread rapidly, from a few cases in Mexico to worldwide infections. New countries join the list daily. In less than a week this virus has become sufficiently threatening for the World Health Organization (WHO) to move us all, last night, onto pandemic threat level five. That means a "strong signal that a pandemic is imminent".

Compare that with the years we've all spent pondering the H5N1 bird flu virus, as it moved through bird populations, then to people. This virus is "already worse than H5N1", according to Dr Alan Hay of the Influenza Centre in Mill Hill, one of the WHO's four main laboratories, it may not yet be as lethal yet, but it is spreading far faster.

Last night, hers was the voice we did not want to hear - Margaret Chan of the WHO told us in no uncertain terms: "All countries now should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans".

There are still a lot of unknowns. The number of infections that might eventually be linked to this virus is impossible to predict. In an average year, with seasonal flu, 2,500 Europeans will be infected. We still can't tell if this virus will cause fewer infections than this, or more - perhaps tens of thousands more.

And we don't know if the infection will become embedded here in the UK - it may not. All we know now is that 80 people are being tested, and we have five cases confirmed. For the time being, all are linked to travel from Mexico - that's a good sign because it indicates that so far there's been no spread from person to person in the UK.

Swine flu - which might not be called that for much longer - for this is now a human disease - will run its course, and scientists here and around the world will learn more about how fast it can spread, how lethal it can be and more about its chances of perhaps changing as it spreads - to become more, or less, dangerous.

But there's a problem with all that. As one of the UK's leading flu experts put it to me: "We'll understand what's happening - but it will already be happening".


  • Comment number 1.


    'WORSE' Susan? I know this is Newsnight Science, but REALLY . . !

  • Comment number 2.

    If this does turn into a full blooded pandemic I assume that people with flu will be encouraged to stay home.

    Will they have to rely on the internet to get food if they don't have friends and relatives nearby?

  • Comment number 3.

    #1 barriesingleton

    "Newsnight Science"!

    You are the man who has done a bit of R&D and therefore feels that his gut instinct about climate change happening due to human impact - supported by 99% of the scientists in the field - might be wrong!

    You seem enthralled by the race "realism" and eugenics espoused by Jaded_Jean and don't seem to have objections to the proposed end of democracy in favour of Hitler-style tyranny.

    I would hope that most scientists wouldn't even laugh at your views.

  • Comment number 4.

    Susan, what is the past history in terms of a flu virus changing and becoming more virulent. Also any more views or a clearer picture as to why the situation in Mexico has been so different in terms of severity of illness?

  • Comment number 5.

    to susan watts...'can't you sex it up a bit' all this science bumf has me glazing over and at half ten it requires too much concentration

  • Comment number 6.

    Nos 2

    It would seem wise to have a substantial food delivery situation via internet and phone ready to put into action, has the Government talked about this?

  • Comment number 7.

    Worse than bird flu! oh really, and what were the global deaths stats from that horror? eh. Go1: Buy a mask and get yourself to Tescos, you'll be alright - long as there are no BNP members lurking at the cheese counter:) just keep watching the news for updates buddy.

  • Comment number 8.

    This calamity is indeed alarming, thus, it calls for urgent attention by all authorities. Those of us, who are privileged to raise the awareness campaign should do more by way of educating the masses on preventive measures.

    All hands must be on deck and all knees down in prayers for a divine intervention.

    See more on the concern of the average onlooker at

  • Comment number 9.

    Aren't we really already in pandemic? 20% of the networks subnets have been infected and it is spreading within the subnets. And we do not have an anti-virus patch for it. In these circumstance in the systems administation world, you are up the creek without a paddle.

    The only way to stop it is to disconnect all the machines from the network or at least shut down the gateways on the infected subnets. Right now only Cuba has taken any step in that direction, but they have not shutdown the gateway, just one route.

    The network has a virus, we are not going to shutdown the gateways and we have no patch. Lets just hope that it does not develop into something more virulent. I guess there is a 33.3% chance of it getting more virulent, a 33.3% chance of it becoming less virulent and a 33.3% of it staying the same (probably less due to the nature of evolution to change).

    Houston we could have a problem.
    More sysadmin related analysis on the virus on the network -

  • Comment number 10.

    Why are we stockpiling Tamiflu? All H1N1 starins have been developing resistence to Tamiflu for the past few years. Last year in South Africa and Australia, strains of H1N1 acheived 100% resistence to oseltamivir (Tamiflu) -

    Th WHO reported in 2008 that H1N1 strains are developing resistence to oseltamivir -

    This is another example of how ineffective governments are at managing our new globalised world, making bad plans and continuing along them. They should if anything be stockpiling Relenza, which has seem little if any resistence in other H1N1 strains -

  • Comment number 11.


    i would be grateful if you quote 1 in 250 as the fatality rate not 4 in 1000 as quoted on BBC news at 10 just now.

    I can only assume 4 in 1000 id deemed beyond what most people can visualise and get worried about.

    For goodness sake!!!!!

  • Comment number 12.

    I would like to know how many have RECOVERED from the virus, so that this can be SUBTRACTED from the CRUDE TOTAL INFECTED, currently being trumpeted by media.

    Also: how likely is it that recovery from the current strain might confer some protection against a mutated strain? (say - as Cow Pox was a defence against Smallpox.) Such immunity would surely 'damp' the 'second-wave' spread?

    Might we, please, have some calm, rational, informed comment from a quiet, non-prima-donna source?


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