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

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

C++ Software Developer / Image Processing / 3D Visualisation

£45,000 to £55,000: IT Connections Ltd: C++ Software Developer / Image Process...

Java / J2EE Developer / Agile / Linux

£30,000 to £40,000: IT Connections Ltd: Java / J2EE Developer / Agile / Linux ...

Software Development Manager / Java / J2EE

£45,000 to £55,000: IT Connections Ltd: Software Development Manager / Java / ...

Digital Content Manager,Leicester

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Charter Selection: Leading Nationwide and important...

Day In a Page

lowers, candles and other tributes in front of the Netherlands Embassy in memory of the victims of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17  

To punish Putin for the MH17 disaster we must boycott Russia 2018

Jack Gilbert
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor