Ross Clark

Should we be afraid of this new swine flu?

Should we be afraid of this new swine flu?
(Photo: iStock)
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Imagine if a vaccine for Covid-19 was approved tomorrow, and that within weeks we had all been vaccinated. Would life be able to go quickly back more or less to normal? Don’t bet on it. The long shadow of Covid-19 will mean mass panic every time another novel virus comes to light. Indeed, news of such a virus comes today in a paper by a team from China’s Agricultural University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They say they have identified a flu virus with pandemic potential, which is circulating in the pig population and has already infected significant numbers of humans who work with pigs. Crucially, however, it has not yet demonstrated any ability to be passed from human to human.

The G4EA H1N1 virus, as it has been called, was picked up through routine monitoring of pig farms in China between 2011 and 2018. It is not, in other words, as new as Sars-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19. But it is a reminder of how often these novel viruses come to light. G4EA H1N1 is similar to the swine flu virus which caused a panic in 2009. It was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) but later ruled to be no worse than seasonal flu. Before that, we had Avian Flu, H5N1 which the WHO predicted could kill millions of people around the world, but which has to date killed only 455.

Neither scare had much impact on day-to-day life, but after Covid-19 the dynamics will inevitably change. Now we have seen the social and economic havoc which can be wrought by the reaction to novel viruses, the emergence of one is inevitably going to be followed by fears that we could be thrown back into national lockdowns. The Covid-19 crisis is as yet far from over. But even when it is – and such viruses seem to emerge a couple of times a decade – Covid-19 will inevitably leave behind a legacy of fear. We will have to be prepared for people changing their behaviour, and governments imposing instant and restrictive measures on our day-to-day lives in an attempt not to be left behind. That does not bode well for the economy over the next couple of decades.