Not one for @johnrentoul – but could 1 in 6 of us be dead this time next year?

English: Different sites and outcomes of H1N1 ...
Image via Wikipedia

It sounds like an outrageous idea, fit only for conspiracy theorists and the otherwised unhinged, but, at the risk of attracting the interest of John Rentoul’s “Question To Which The Answer is No” (QTWTAIN) list or sounding like I want a job on the Daily Express, the serious point is this: it is not impossible, if not yet likely, that as many as one in six of the planet’s human population could be felled inside a year by (a mutated) H5N1 flu virus.

I have just read a really very scary article by Debora MacKenzie to this effect in the current edition of the New Scientist:

Two research teams have found that a handful of mutations allow H5N1 to spread like ordinary flu while staying just as deadly, at least in ferrets.

Given that ordinary flu can infect a third of humanity in  a season and that half the people who catch H5N1 die, the implications are not hard to fathom.

Sounds like the gravest of public health emergencies to me, and indeed the point of the article is not to scare people but to insist that governments and scientists get their act together in tackling the emergency.

So far the way in which this recent work has reached limited public consciousness has been over the issue of censorship of the experimental results – the US authorities in particular are worried that describing the genetic modifications required to H5N1 to allow it to spread widely (currently it is widespread in birds but very rarely transmitted to humans and will not transmit from human to human at all) will be used by terrorists to make a bio weapon. It is not difficult to understand the fear, given the basic maths.