100 years after the Spanish flu, virology still has far to go

Medical science does wonders. From amazing surgical procedures to an incredible variety of drugs and a fantastic array of tools and equipment, medicine, as it is practiced today, is light years ahead of where it was in 1918 at the time of the Spanish flu. Yet, medical science has not been capable of quickly defeating the current Wuhan virus pandemic. Health care has improved beyond recognition. Compared to 100 years ago, health services can deploy a bewildering variety of drugs and equipment and therapies to treat the infected.

The effects of the current pandemic are most often compared with the effects of the Spanish flu in 1918. The flu virus was identified in 1933 and the first flu vaccine came out in 1942. However, even today the flu vaccine is thought to be effective only in a little over 50% of cases. It is estimated that the Spanish flu, over a period of 3 years killed between 25 and 39 million people and that about 500 million were infected when the global population was only about 1,800 million. Today with a global population of 7, 200 million it is estimated that at least 35 million have been infected and, so far, over 1 million are thought to have died. The pandemic has lasted 6 months and is still ongoing. The virus was identified very quickly – perhaps one month – but only after the data repressed by the Chinese government and the WHO – leaked out.

The hunt for a vaccine is only 6 months old. There are at least 300 groups actively searching for one. Around 30 proposed vaccines have entered some kind of clinical trials. Estimates of when a vaccine could be readily available range from 6 months to 2 years to never. Money is being thrown at vaccine development at unprecedented levels. Certainly some of the groups chasing a vaccine have zero chance of success but cannot resist the temptation of huge amounts of easy money.

But virology is far from a settled science. In fact, there is still debate on whether a virus is living or not. That there are 300 different groups seeking a vaccine is, itself, evidence of 300 different opinions. During the past 6 months a bewildering variety of suggestions have been made for prophylactics, remedies and cures. Every single one has come from a “medical specialist”. The best advice is still “avoid infection” (by social distancing and masks which may or may not work), and hope. There are no preventive drugs and there are no cures (beyond treating symptoms). If and when vaccines are found, they will vary in how effective they are. Estimates of how expensive a vaccine may be range from 30$ to 300$ per dose for either a one-dose or a two-dose vaccine, with immunity available for periods ranging from 3 months to 1 year after vaccination.

Everyday new “experts” are trotted out on TV. But the science is not settled and there are no experts. The simple reality is that compared to 100 years ago, this pandemic has medical science just as stymied as the Spanish flu did – but at a very much higher level of knowledge.


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