Jeremy Laurance: Let down by the reality of swine flu

We have to explain that science deals in probabilities, not certainties

Related Topics

Forgive me if this sounds callous, but I am finding it hard to conceal my disappointment about swine flu. For years I have been writing about the "next flu pandemic" and its potential to cause catastrophe, on the basis of what virologists told me.

I went to Hong Kong in 2003 to report on the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – better known as SARS – because I thought that might be it. I followed the spread of avian influenza from the Far East across Europe to Britain in 2006 with, yes, eager anticipation. And when swine flu broke out in Mexico last April and the first flu pandemic in 40 years was declared, I sounded the alarm as loudly as anyone.

I didn't expect it to end with a whimper instead of a bang. But that is how it is looking now – for this year at least. New infections have plateaued for the last two weeks at levels only just above the baseline for seasonal flu. The official reason given is the "half-term effect": children off school slow the spread of the virus. But swine flu may well now be on a downward trend. Flu outbreaks happen in waves of up to 16 weeks, and more usually 10 weeks. We are already in week 10 of the current wave.

Of course, it is still early days. Even if we are over the worst for this year, the virus may mutate and come back in a third wave (the first happened in the summer) later this winter or next. But suppose it does not. What then? How will Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government's chief medical officer, and the virologists that advise him explain the enormous resources – £1bn plus – that have been devoted to fighting what will have turned out to be a not very great threat?

Swine flu is very nasty in a few people – especially under-fives, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses. It has killed perfectly healthy young people. In this respect it is significantly different from seasonal flu which mainly kills the vulnerable elderly. Even so, the Government's worst-case scenario for this year – the worst case – is 1,000 deaths. When I wrote my first story warning of the threat of pandemic flu exactly 20 years ago, in the midst of the 1989-90 seasonal flu epidemic, 35,000 people died in Britain.

I have great sympathy for Sir Liam Donaldson. The one thing we know about flu is its unpredictability. Calling the odds on the extent and severity of a flu pandemic is an impossible task. Yet in speaking to virologists in recent days, I sense a certain defensiveness, a reluctance to accept that, potentially, we may have overdone it on flu.

That should not be surprising. If I feel disappointed – and, ghoulishly, I do – how much more disappointed must be those who have devoted their life's work to pandemic flu? They may feel relief at the lives spared, while grieving for the research grants lost, and for their missed moment in the sun.

If the retreat of swine flu is confirmed this week, I worry what impact it may have on public confidence in science. We were warned to prepare for a modern plague. If it does not arrive, how closely will we heed future warnings? There is surely, then, only one option. To explain that science deals not in certainties but probabilities, that when things do not turn out as we expect we will endeavour to discover why, and to admit – ministers, officials, researchers and those who, like me, report their research – that on this occasion we got it wrong.

Jeremy Laurance is Health Editor of 'The Independent'

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power