Global pandemic could wipe out 900 million people

Virus simulation shows governments and health bodies are insufficiently prepared for flu-like breakout

Health workers wearing protective clothing during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014
(Image credit: Dominque Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

Governments and international health bodies are wholly unprepared for a global flu pandemic that could wipe out almost a billion people, scientists have warned.

Virus simulations conducted at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found the spread of a new pathogen could kill up to 900 million in a matter of years if it started to spread tomorrow.

Researchers concluded that a made-up illness, a new type of parainfluenza known as Clade X, which was spread by coughing would kill 150 million people – almost three times the UK population – in less than two years in the fictional situation.

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The simulation was designed so the pathogen wasn’t markedly more dangerous than real illnesses such as Sars – “and illustrates the tightrope governments tread in responding to such illnesses”, says Metro.

The simulation predicted how governments and health authorities around the world would react to a deadly infection spreading so quickly. Real health professionals took part in the experiment, including US politicians Tom Daschle and Susan Brooks, and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Julie Gerberding.

However, they were not able to prevent the disease from spreading and killing millions of people, “making experts worried the world is not prepared for a deadly pandemic”, reports the Daily Mail.

Twenty months after the start of the simulated outbreak, 150 million people had died and no vaccine had been developed. Researchers said the pandemic would have ended with up to 900 million dead, nearly 10% of the world’s population.

Speaking to Business Insider, Dr Eric Toner of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health Security, said the research highlighted many of the shortcomings in our global healthcare system.

“We don’t have the ability to produce vaccines to a novel pathogen within months rather than decades and we don’t have the global public health capabilities that would allow us to rapidly identify and control an outbreak before it becomes a pandemic,” he said.

Healthcare systems around the world would struggle to treat huge numbers of people and potentially fail, he said, adding that it was “lucky” the Sars virus, which killed 10% of the 8,000 people it infected 2003, had not been more severe.

“It will happen,” he warned, “but I don’t know when.”

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