In re-reading an article from National Geographic (“The Next Killer Flu”/October 2005), I was reminded of some stand-out numbers.
1918 flu — -Between 50 and 100 million deaths
Asian flu (1957) — -1,000,000 deaths
Hong Kong flu (1968) — -750,000 deaths
The last two were caused by bird and human viruses mixing. There was no vaccine.
The 1918 flu is believed to have originated in birds sometime before 1918. “Except for a few Pacific Islanders, everyone on Earth was exposed to the disease, and half got sick.” There was no vaccine.
At the time of Nat’l Geo’s publication (2005), there was strong belief in epidemiology that it would be a bird-flu virus that would cause the next global pandemic. The number of deaths predicted made all of the above numbers look miniscule. Predicted numbers ran as high as over 300 million.
MY THOUGHTS: Covid-19 has now taken 500,000 lives and counting. We have social distanced, masked up, undergone various kinds of isolation, and moved through most of the first 12 months without a vaccine. All of it we have found difficult.
But here’s the biggie: In 2005, this wasn’t the virus at the front of medicine’s pandemic concerns. H5N1 bird flu virus, which was killing poultry and people in Asia, was. This was the Big ‘Un with the vast potential to kill with extreme lethality. Again, there was no vaccine.
At the expense of sounding “fear monger,” I believe Covid-19 is preparing all of us for this monster. Bird flu still moves in populations of birds (both wild and domestic) and is worrisome (currently) in parts of the world. We’re eliminating some of the more obvious populations of sickened poultry just as we have in the past. But I would be very surprised if concerns about H5N1(or its variants) have ended between epidemiologists. The vaccine we are currently taking begins another era of vaccines. They have the power to see us through more disease devastation. In what ways, I do not know. I’m not an expert, not an authority, not even well researched on this one. But ignoring the potential for H5N1 is like ignoring an avalanche in the winter of 2021.
IN SUMMARY: Even in 2005, there was talk of a genetically engineered vaccine for H5N1, “altering one gene to tame the virus and splicing in others to speed its growth.” The U.S. government had already ordered two million doses, which would be sorely inadequate but a beginning in case of an early outbreak. “Makers would know how to produce it and could boost production fast, says Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. At the first sign of a pandemic, ‘We’ll be able to say; Go, take off the brakes and make millions and millions of doses.’”
What goes on behind the scenes of medicine is mostly hard to imagine. In 2005, I read this article with the ideas for a book, but didn’t even begin to understand the implications for our future with pandemics. Genetic engineering did the proverbial belly-flop in my brain. . . and in many ways still does. But in regard to the “Big ‘Un,” this may be our only salvation.
With every spring migration, I think about the wild birds moving, swirling in vast numbers across our globe, and I love the image of this great feat. But there’s also the chance that even a few could “spill-over” a virus, H5N1 into a human population somewhere and change our world forever. We better be aware. . . . and know at this point we at least stand a fighting chance.