Jeremy Laurance: Will this pandemic turn out to be more kitten than tiger?

Medical Life

Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government's Chief Medical Officer, let me have it with both barrels at last week's swine flu briefing. I couldn't blame him. It must be extremely galling, after you have worked tirelessly, without a break, to build up Britain's defences against the pandemic and received accolades for your efforts from around the world, to be asked whether the cost of the exercise can be justified. Hardly surprising, then, that he let his irritation show. "I totally disagree ... that we have overdone it on flu," he said, calling up images of "parents standing by intensive care cots in life or death situations."

It's easy for me. I only have to ask the questions, with the benefit of hindsight. He has to make the decisions in advance, without that benefit. He would argue, rightly I believe, that given our state of knowledge about the behaviour of the flu virus at the time, Britain acted wisely to develop a pandemic plan and to enact it when swine flu emerged in Mexico last April.

But when the pandemic is over – possibly not for another two or three years – the reckoning will come. And now is our last chance, in Britain, to view its natural course – before the roll-out of vaccination halts it in its path.

If this turns out to be the weakest pandemic in history, as I have previously suggested, it may be that our response – with one of the biggest stockpiles of anti-viral drugs and vaccines in the world – will appear disproportionate. It is still too early to say because the virus could resume spreading or mutate into a more lethal strain. But if it does not, the question for virologists will be why, after years of warnings, the pandemic turned out to be a kitten, not a tiger. We were warned to prepare for avian flu, with a 60 per cent mortality, not swine flu with a 0.005 per cent mortality.

It is then that the cost of the exercise – more than £1 billion – will come under scrutiny, which could affect plans for future pandemics. Many people feel uncomfortable with adjusting spending in line with the predicted loss of life. But £1 spent on swine flu is a £1 less for other needs. Equity demands that we consider costs – to ignore them would be unethical.

In my question to Sir Liam I had pointed out that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) had that morning ruled against a drug, sorafenib, for advanced liver cancer because it was too expensive. NICE has, as usual, been castigated for this decision, which has been called "scandalous" (Macmillan Cancer Support), "enormously frustrating" (Cancer Research UK) and "absurd" (Professor Karol Sikora).

Not a single voice, to my knowledge, has been raised in criticism of the high price charged – £3,000 per patient per month – by the drug's manufacturer, Bayer Healthcare. Why? Because the drug industry has a stranglehold on our doctors, researchers and charities. They dare not bite the hand that – directly in grants or indirectly in research funding – so prodigiously feeds them.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Accountant

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Summarises financial status by ...

    Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

    £18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

    Recruitment Genius: Salesforce Developer

    £50000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued business growt...

    Recruitment Genius: Internal Sales Executive

    £20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss