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Now is the time to prepare for the worst. Flu—including pandemic flu—tends to be seasonal. The infection will probably tail off in the north over the next few months and head south as winter gets a grip on the Earth’s less populated hemisphere. It would make sense, therefore, to put the antiviral factories on overtime immediately, and try to develop, manufacture and distribute a vaccine.
Crash vaccine programmes pose their own risks. In 1976 flu vaccines killed a lot of people in America. But the growth of biotechnology means there are new ways of making vaccines and new types of vaccine to make. Mostly, these have been aimed at the threat of bird flu. But laboratories will already be clearing the decks to receive their first samples of the new swine flu, and getting to work on countermeasures.
And there is one further lesson. The system of checking for new diseases also needs to be improved. Partly because everyone was looking at Asia, no one was concentrating on Mexico. But as genetic sequencing becomes cheap and routine, it ought to be possible to pick dangerous mutations up quickly.
That would mean sending samples from doctors’ surgeries to a central laboratory dedicated to sequencing, even when nothing strange was suspected. And that would require organisation and money. Not every person with a sniffle need be tested—only a small, representative sample. But if this had happened in Mexico over the past few months, the generals of global health would have seen that something was coming down from the hills and they could have mobilised sooner.
Active caution, then, is what is called for. The world’s policymakers, most of whom live in the northern hemisphere, should not be fooled into thinking the new virus is going away for long, even if it declines over the next few months. Instead, as in any phoney war, they should use the time they have been granted to reinforce the world’s defences by stocking up with antiviral medicine and making vaccines. They should also remember that, even if this flu turns out to be less frightening than feared, it is only a matter of time before a deadlier one comes along. A drill today will help to spare millions of lives in the future.
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