THE dreaded Spanish Flu which killed around 50 million people around the globe could be the cause of the next pandemic, one of the WHO’s leading experts on influenza has warned.
Dr John McCauley, a leading member of the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System, also told The Sun Online how changes to the regular flu virus could make it much more fatal amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the world still reeling from the Covid-19 outbreak, scientists are desperately searching for the other dangerous viruses likely to cause the next pandemic, which could lead to “case counts and death tolls similar to the Spanish Flu”.
Dr McCauley, director of the Worldwide Influenza Centre, revealed his biggest concern right now to be seasonal flu, and warned that a future pandemic is likely to come from a flu strain – despite flagging flu figures.
Covid measures such as social distancing and regularly washing hands have contributed to one of the lowest flu circulations for more than a century, according to Dr McCauley.
But common viruses such as seasonal flu could be much more dangerous in a post-pandemic world, with falling immunity levels and Covid continuing to linger as lockdowns lift.
You could have half the people with coronavirus and half the people with flu
Dr John McCauley
It has already been warned Britain could see a dramatic flu surge next winter as people get back to normal – despite the UK almost seeing flu vanish so far this season.
A study posted in the British Medical Journal showed people infected with both coronavirus and flu were twice as likely to die than people infected with just coronavirus.
The 1918 influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish Flu, infected around a third of the world’s population and is believed to have originated in birds.
The number of deaths from Spanish Flu is estimated to have been around 50 million, killing more people than World War 1.
And Dr McCauley has cautioned that we need to be ready for its return.
The question is not if we will have another pandemic, but when
Dr Erin Sorrell
He told us: “Since we’ve seen it (Spanish Flu) before, we could see it again. We still need to remain prepared for this type of scale of event.”
He added: “Before coronavirus, the next one that was going to come out and get you was going to be the flu.
“The next one will be flu or another coronavirus. You know that flu can do it, and you now know that coronavirus can do it.
“So flu hasn’t gone off the list, flu remains on the list, flu remains on the list.
“We were lucky with the first SARS-coronavirus, we have’t been so lucky this time, and there could be other diseases out there.”
Dr Erin Sorrell, an expert on emerging infections diseases and influenza, told The Sun Online flu should always be considered a “major contender” when searching for the next pandemic, which could kill as many people as the Spanish Flu in 1918.
She told us: “The question is not if we will have another pandemic but when. While a pandemic today could lead to case counts and death tolls similar to 1918, it would not be for the same reasons.”
Part of Dr McCauley’s role at WHO is monitoring changes in viruses, particularly influenzas and zoonotic influenzas, and helping to develop vaccines based on this.
And he is worried that a mutation in human seasonal flu while Covid-19 is still around could badly hit the globe.
The potential for people to be infected with both viruses at the same time could vastly increase fatalities.
He told The Sun Online: “If that made another antigenic change so that the vaccine didn’t cover it well, the last time that happened we had significant excess mortality in the UK.
“If the virus moved on in a similar kind of way that it did in 2014-2015, then it would be a concern.
“On top of the not going away coronavirus pressures then that becomes significant. You could have half the people with coronavirus and half the people with flu.”
“Are you going to separate them? Are you going to mix them up? And what about if you get a dual infection? Is that worse?”
Last week saw the perfect example of a flu virus mutating, with Russian authorities reporting the first human infections of avian influenza H5N8.
While this particular strain of flu is not fatal, the way it has adapted to infect humans is of concern, Dr McCauley said.
He added: “It’s a concern. The people didn’t seem to have any severe disease so that might be a concern that other people in other places were getting infected and this is the first time that people were picked up with an infection.
“There is nothing special about this virus that’s been present in that area of Russia but this kind of virus could acquire the ability to spread better in people and that would not be good.”
Dr Sorrell, also described the recent outbreak in Russia as “concerning”.
She told The Sun Online: “This subtype continues to be a dangerous one for humans in terms of its ability to spill over from an avian host to a human through very close contact and cause very high mortality rates, in the case of highly pathogenic strains.”
Scientists continue to monitor emerging diseases as its been warned despite the devastation of Covid-19, this may not be the “big one”.
WHO has compiled a priority alert list of dangerous viruses that could spread including the Nipah virus, MERS, SARS and Zika.
Some believe a disease unknown to us, classified by WHO as Disease X, could be about to wipe out millions if not discovered in time.
Scientists have predicted we could face a pandemic every five years due to zoonotic diseases, viruses that cross over from animals to humans.
Environmental writer John Vidal, who is working on a book revealing the links between nature and disease, predicted the world faces a new Black Death-scale pandemic.
Given the popularity of air travel and global trade, a virus could rampage across the world, unknowingly spread by asymptomatic carriers, “in a few weeks, killing tens of millions of people before borders could be closed”, he adds.
He said: “Mankind has changed its relationship with both wild and farmed animals, destroying their habitats and crowding them together – and the process… is only accelerating.
“If we fail to appreciate the seriousness of the situation, this present pandemic may be only a precursor to something far graver still.”