A global flu outbreak continues to be a “serious and real” risk to human beings more than the ongoing Covid-19, according to infectious disease experts.
According to Professor Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, a global influenza outbreak could be far worse than the Covid pandemic, with models predicting up to 33 million deaths in the first six months, according to The Telegraph.
“Prior to Covid-19, influenza pandemics were the number one biological risk to humans and this hasn’t changed,” Osterholm was quoted as saying.
“During the 100 years between 1918 and 2018, we had four influenza pandemics. This clearly illustrates that the risk of pandemic influenza is a serious and real threat. The question is not if we will have another influenza pandemic, but when,” he said.
Osterholm was speaking at the World Health Organization’s and several other organisations’ launch of a roadmap to develop vaccines against both seasonal flu, which is expected to increase this year, and pandemic influenza.
Each year, influenza kills 290,000 to 650,000 people, with lower- and middle-income countries bearing a disproportionate share of the burden. Historically, the world has experienced an influenza pandemic every 25 years.
The roadmap outlines what is required for the development of new vaccines, ranging from a better understanding of the immune response to influenza to ensuring long-term funding.
Current flu vaccines, according to experts, are based on technology developed in the 1940s and must be formulated each year based on which strains of the disease are circulating.
While there has been “incremental” improvement in vaccine development in the last 10 years, “we still do not have a vaccine that protects against stronger strains for a longer amount of time”, Dr Martin Friede, vaccines expert at the WHO, was quoted as saying.
The ultimate goal is to develop a universal flu vaccine that does not need to be given every year, is effective against a wide range of strains, and can be used in low and middle-income countries.
There is also an urgent need for pandemic influenza vaccines, and experts are hopeful that the lessons of the Covid pandemic can be learned.