The ultimate weapon of mass destruction
H5N1 may be out of the headlines for now but the threat is greater than ever, says Robert Fox
The threat to this country from a pandemic caused by bird flu or some such virus is greater than the threat from international terrorism in the view of Gordon Brown and his Downing Street advisors. This is why pandemics are ranked alongside terrorism and other major global ills in the National Security Strategy unveiled last month.
On the face of it, the briefing seems alarmist. The World Health Organisation has recorded only 238 deaths proven to be from a human variant of the H5N1 virus. Yet scientists and security specialists are more in agreement on the risk of a pandemic than on climate change and global warming.
The argument is based on a hypothesis, a short-odds scientific bet. Sir David King, who's just stepped down as the UK's Chief Scientific Adviser, puts it like this: "It is more a question of when rather than if the H5N1 virus mutates into a virulent human form. So far we have noted more than 20 mutations of the virus in only a few years."
His view is supported by every public health official or doctor I have met in recent months. Only last week, three former heads of the Defence Ministry and the Joint Intelligence Committee told me without hesitation that they thought the PM was right to flag the potential menace.
The H5N1 virus may have dropped out of the news headlines just now, but it hasn't gone away – far from it. Last week Egypt recorded the 21st human death from avian flu in about a year. As with a quarter of all human cases, the virus had been passed between members of the same family.
The Lancet has just reported that a 52-year-old man in Nanjing, China picked up the virus from his 24-year-old son, who caught it after visiting a poultry market. The old man survived thanks to the prompt application of antiviral medicines.
Currently there are major outbreaks of the virus in the bird populations of China, India, Bangladesh and South Korea. In Pakistan and Egypt the authorities are worried about the spread of the virus in the dog and cat population.
In Britain and the US, public health studies suggest that a full-blown pandemic of bird flu or something like the respiratory disease SARS could knock out a critical mass of the working population. Some sixty per cent of the nursing and medical services could be out of action within 10 days, according to a study at the Defence Academy of the UK Staff College. This would mean the armed services would have to be called in to help.
The threat to public order - a scenario out of the Day of the Triffids or the Quatermass Experiment - is what really alarms Downing Street. An American study has suggested that in a worst case, half the population would go down with bird flu – roughly the scale of Europe's Black Death of 1348. Half of those would have to go to hospital and millions would die in the first wave.
The government has laid in stocks of 14.6m courses of Tamiflu, one of two known medicines capable of combating H5N1. However, pharmaceutical competitors have claimed that Tamiflu would only be effective for a very short time, and the WHO says the virus appeared to be resistant to Tamiflu in at least two known cases.
A glimmer of hope has been raised by research in America and the UK that suggests that there is something about humans that means the bird flu virus would have to mutate twice in order to 'unpick the lock' in the glycans, or sugar chains that line human airways and lungs.
But for Gordon Brown the problem is to warn and prepare, without causing public panic. Security experts are pretty sure a new version of the Black Death is odds on to happen. Their biggest concern now is that terrorists could use the viruses as a new weapon of mass destruction. Leaders like Brown know they have been warned. ·
Comments are now closed on this article