Fears of a global pandemic are mounting as experts have warned there will be ‘no way to stop’ a killer disease from claiming millions of lives.
The concerns, raised at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, come exactly 100 years after the 1918 Spanish flu that claimed 50 million lives.
The H1N1 virus killed three times as many people as World War I and did it quicker than any other illness in recorded history.
And now leading names, speaking a century on, have warned another pandemic is unavoidable amid the ease of international travel.
A mutated flu virus poses the biggest threat, they revealed at the Swiss summit, because it can join together with other strains to become deadlier.
The concerns, raised at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, come exactly 100 years after the 1918 Spanish flu that claimed 50 million lives (stock)
Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told AFP: ‘Pandemics are becoming a real threat to humanity.’
Dr Sylvie Briand, a specialist in infectious diseases at the World Health Organisation, added: ‘We know that it is coming, but we have no way of stopping it.’
The pair were speaking of their concerns at a Davos discussion called ‘Are We Ready For The Next Pandemic?’.
Is flu the next pandemic?
Dr Briand added: ‘The flu is a respiratory virus that is easily transmitted and people can be contagious even before they show symptoms, so it is not easy to control.’
Its numerous forms are also able to ‘marry’ one another or bond with viruses from birds or pigs in potentially deadly new combinations.
This process is what sparked the Swine flu pandemic of 2009 – which killed nearly 300,000 people across the world after striking around 60 countries.
The deadly plague outbreak in Madagascar
The comments come after the plague outbreak in Madagascar – the most recent epidemic to receive international aid attention amid fears it would spread.
More than 200 people were killed during the outbreak that ravaged the island over the winter, which prompted 10 nearby African countries to be placed on high alert.
Zika rocked South America
The most recent pandemic – defined as the worldwide spread of a new disease – was the mosquito-borne Zika virus that rocked South America in 2016.
The infection, which struck 70 countries, can cause microcephaly, or infants born with abnormally small heads. It took scientists by surprise.
HOW DEADLY WAS THE SPANISH FLU OF 1918? THE VIRUS THAT KILLED 3 TIMES AS MANY PEOPLE AS WORLD WAR I
The exact global mortality rate from the 1918/1919 pandemic is not known
The deadly flu virus attacked more than one-third of the world’s population, and within months had killed more than 50 million people – three times as many as the World War I – and did it more quickly than any other illness in recorded history.
Most influenza outbreaks disproportionately kill juvenile, elderly, or already weakened patients; in contrast the 1918 pandemic predominantly killed previously healthy young adults.
To maintain morale, wartime censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, Britain, France, and the United States.
However, newspapers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in Spain, creating a false impression of Spain as being especially hard hit – and leading to the pandemic’s nickname Spanish flu.
The close quarters and massive troop movements of World War I hastened the pandemic and probably both increased transmission and augmented mutation, researchers believe.
The global mortality rate from the 1918/1919 pandemic is not known, but an estimated 10 per cent to 20 per cent of those who were infected died, with estimates of the total number of deaths ranging from 50-100 million people.
And Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever, killed 11,000 in West Africa after it decimated the region between 2014 and 2015.
The international response to the outbreak drew criticism for moving too slowly, and scientists warned it spread so quickly because of the ease of global travel.
Dr Briand, who previously acknowledged that the WHO made wrong decisions in responding to Ebola, said: ‘When we travel, the viruses travel with us.
‘Humanity is more vulnerable in the face of epidemics because we are much more connected and we travel around much more quickly than before.’
The economic impact of outbreaks
Richard Hatchett, director of the public-private Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), also warned of the economic impact of outbreaks.
In 2015, hundreds of cases of the MERS respiratory syndrome cost South Korea $10 billion (£7m), he revealed at the summit.
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates estimated in February 2017 that preparing to respond to a global pandemic would cost $3.4 billion (£2.4bn) a year.
The potential cost of one if the world is unprepared for a future outbreak could be $570 billion (£400bn), he said.
The CEPI is seeking to develop treatments for three viruses for which there is currently none – MERS, Lassa fever and Nipah.
Dr Briand added: ‘At the WHO, we are trying to prepare for a catastrophe, hoping to reduce the impact as much as possible.’
Developing a vaccine against a new virus, however, is dangerous and can take up to six months, the WHO claims.
But it costs up to $200 million (£140m) – and provides no big motivation for drug firms because there is ‘no commercial market’, Mr Hatchett said.