The next flu pandemic could kill 886,000 people in the UK and infect nearly three quarters of the population, scientists have predicted.
Government officials have previously warned an outbreak of a mutated influenza strain is on the horizon and poses a bigger threat to humanity than terrorism.
Now in a scientific experiment, conducted for a BBC TV show, an expert has re-iterated the risks of flu.
Two scientists calculated how quickly the next pandemic could spread across the country using data from around 30,000 people.
The prediction comes just weeks after the UK and US was crippled by a flu outbreak, which swamped hospitals and left them looking like ‘war zones’.
An analysis showed that more than 43 million people would be at risk. According to the last census in 2011 the UK’s population was nearly 63.2 million.
The experiment, to be shown on the TV show Contagion! The BBC Four Pandemic, was led by mathematician Dr Hannah Fry and medic Dr Javid Abdelmoneim.
Government officials already warn a potent outbreak of a mutated influenza strain poses a bigger threat to humanity than terrorism
Fears of a pandemic have mounted lately, following the worst flu outbreak in recent years that rocked the UK, Australia, and the US.
Dr Tedros Adhanom, the chief of the World Health Organization, warned last month that humanity is ‘vulnerable’ to a pandemic.
The Cabinet Office already lists a pandemic influenza as the biggest threat on the UK’s Risk Register – ahead of terrorism and cyber-attacks.
The new BBC programme, which tracked the movement of infected people, offers hope of a way of preventing large-scale outbreaks.
A new outbreak would most likely come from South-east Asia, according to the researchers, giving health officials a four-week warning.
The researchers used a specially created mobile app to ‘infect’ users with a virus and track their interactions over an eight-month period.
THE FLU SEASON OF 2017/18 AND WHY IT WAS SO SEVERE
The rocketing number of flu cases in the UK and across the world was put down to a surge in four aggressive subtypes that attacked the population simultaneously.
One included the so-called ‘Aussie flu’, a strain of influenza A which triggered triple the number of expected cases in Australia during the country’s winter.
Experts feared the virulent H3N2 strain, which reached the UK, could prove as deadly to humanity as the Hong Kong flu in 1968, which killed one million people.
Another was a strain of influenza B, called Yamagata and dubbed ‘Japanese flu’, which was blamed for the majority of cases during the UK’s winter.
Its rapid spread raised concerns because it was not covered in a vaccine given to the elderly. However, experts claim it was less severe.
Usually, just one subtype, of either influenza A or B, is responsible for the majority of cases. The bug spreads easily in the cold weather.
Nearly 29,000 people downloaded when it was made available between September and November last year.
Within three months it was shown the hypothetical virus, which began in Haslemere in Surrey, would have reached Edinburgh and Northern Ireland.
Around two per cent of the population died in the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak – which would equate to 886,877 deaths if it was to happen again.
Dr Fry acted as patient zero – the first person indected – and brought the virus into Haslemere, described as a quaint town with a population of nearly 17,000.
If she passed with 20 metres of someone else with the app, there is a chance they would get it. The longer they are within range, the higher the risk.
Some 86 per cent of the 500 people who downloaded the app in Haslemere had caught the virus after three days.
The researchers announced in the programme that this meant the town would have come to a ‘standstill’ if this happened in real life.
Teachers and shopkeepers were shown to be ‘super spreaders’ – people who infected far more than others – because of their jobs.
Vaccinating the so-called super spreaders dampened the outbreak by almost a fifth, according to a re-run of the simulation.
The experiment comes exactly 100 years after the 1918 Spanish flu that claimed 50 million lives and killed three times as many people as World War I.
And a scientific experiment, conducted for a BBC TV show, has re-iterated the risks of flu, weeks after the UK was crippled by an outbreak
WHY WAS H3N2 CALLED AUSSIE FLU? HOW AUSTRALIA WAS ROCKED BY THE KILLER STRAIN THAT SPREAD TO UK, US AND EUROPE
Some of the country’s A&E units had ‘standing room only’ after being swamped by more than 100,000 cases of the H3N2 strain
Australia – whose winter occurs during the British summer – had one of its worst outbreaks on record, with two and a half times the normal number of cases.
Some of the country’s A&E units had ‘standing room only’ after being swamped by more than 100,000 cases of the H3N2 strain.
The elderly with their compromised immune systems were particularly susceptible, and a spike in cases among young children occured.
The flu season in the UK and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere mirrors what that of Australia and the Southern Hemisphere.
The same strains of the virus will circulate north in time for the British flu season, which typically begins in November and lasts until March.
Flu viruses are constantly changing proteins on their surface to avoid detection by the body’s immune system – making it more deadly.
This transformation is called an ‘antigenic shift’ if it’s large enough, and can lead to a pandemic. This was responsible for the swine flu outbreak in 2009.
The Aussie flu is transforming quickly, but not fast enough for experts to describe it as a shift. However, it is slowly building up immunity.
A mutated strain is the most likely contender to wipe out millions, because it can join together with other strains to become deadlier.
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.
Dr Chris Chiu, senior lecturer in infectious diseases at Imperial College London, warned that the next strain could be derived from animals.
He said: ‘Flu exists in animals such as birds or pigs, and from time to time you’ll get these other animal flus that cross over into humans.
‘The vast majority of people won’t have any immunity against that new strain of flu, so it spreads very quickly across the world.’
He added: ‘We know that a pandemic will come, there’s no doubt about that, these are regular occurences.
‘What we saw with the last flu pandemic from 2009 is that our health service was almost unable to cope.’
Figures show this winter’s flu outbreak killed at least 271 people in the UK, but this is likely to be an underestimate, experts claim.
The outbreak, fuelled mainly by an aggressive B/Yamagata strain (Japanese flu) and H3N2 (Aussie flu), has now tailed off.
All 50 states in the US were rocked by influenza, with some hospitals branded ‘war zones’. Australia and large parts of Europe were also struck.
Contagion! The BBC Four Pandemic, will be shown on BBC Four on Thursday.
WHAT WAS SPANISH FLU?
The 1918 flu pandemic was unusually deadly and the first of two involving the H1N1 influenza virus.
It infected 500 million people globally, more than one-third of the world’s population, including people on remote Pacific islands and in the Arctic.
It resulted in the deaths of an estimated three to five per cent of the world’s population, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.
Spanish Flu resulted in the deaths of an estimated three to five per cent of the world’s population, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. This image shows soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with the virus
Within months it had killed three times as many as 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.
By contrast, the 1918 pandemic predominantly killed previously healthy young adults.
To maintain morale, wartime censors minimised 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.
This created a false impression of Spain as being especially hard hit, 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 true global mortality rate from the pandemic is not known, but an estimated 10 per cent to 20 per cent of those who were infected died.
This would lead to a death toll of between 50 to 100 million people.