Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
“Hospitals prepare for epidemic to sweep Britain” was the Sunday Times headline. The article beneath informed us that “up to 50 per cent of Britons could be affected” by the coronavirus. The Sunday Telegraph’s lead was “Millions told to stay at home if coronavirus spreads”.
Well, maybe. But I’m going to stick my neck out here. You’re unlikely to be killed by the coronavirus. Yes, the disease is unpleasant; and, yes, in some circumstances, it can cause complications that lead to fatalities. But it is unlikely to be as lethal as the more common forms of influenza that we take for granted, let alone as lethal as, say, stroke or heart disease. We are nowhere near a 1919-style global catastrophe.
Let me put on the record right up front that I am not an epidemiologist, an immunologist or a pathologist. Indeed, I have no medical qualifications whatever. I know nothing about virology beyond the brilliant insight offered by the Nobel Prizewinning biologist, Sir Peter Medawar, that a virus is “a piece of nucleic acid surrounded by bad news”.
But I do know a bit about how incentives work in government and in the media. Politicians, like most people, are bad at calculating risk, and almost every Minister would rather be accused of over-reacting to a threat than of having done too little. There is a similar bias, albeit a less pronounced one, among the various medical advisory bodies: epidemics are what they exist for, and they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t have a subliminal desire to talk them up.
When it comes to the media, the déformation professionelle is more obvious. I have worked under nine editors, and I can’t remember any of them ever saying: “Let’s run a front-page lead suggesting that, all in all, things aren’t so bad”. Finally – and I am sorry to be blunt – companies that manufacture ’flu vaccines have every reason to exaggerate the danger.
We have been here before. Fifteen years ago, the headlines were every bit as panicky as today. There was, we were told a “deadly new strain” of bird ’flu. Hundreds of millions were at risk. New cases were reported in gruesome detail. Maps showed the relentless spread of the virus. One article likened migratory birds to inter-continental ballistic missiles.
As today, those newspaper reports were based on genuine briefings. In November 2005, Dr Lee Jong-wook, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, declared: “It is only a matter of time before an avian ’flu virus—most likely H5N1—acquires the ability to be transmitted from human to human, sparking the outbreak of human pandemic influenza.”
The technical definition of a pandemic is a disease that has broken out across many parts of the world: it doesn’t have to be an especially serious disease. But, in the case of bird ’flu, the experts were genuinely worried.
David Nabbaro, a World Health Organization official, claimed that the H5N1 virus was “like a combination of global warming and HIV/Aids”, and predicted that as many as 150 million people might die. The US announced an avian flu response plan that foresaw the deaths of up to two million Americans. The actual number of confirmed H5N1 fatalities? Less than 500 worldwide.
You might think that that experience would have chastened the headline writers. But when the swine ’flu outbreak came three years later, it was reported in exactly the same apocalyptic tone.
“Killer swine flu, UK on alert” was the Sunday Times lead on 26 April 2009. Three days later, the Daily Mail’s front page announced: “Hundreds will be ill in weeks and a swine flu pandemic could strike 40 per cent of us”.
Again, these headlines were based on real warnings. The then Chief Medical Officer for England suggested that, in a worst-case scenario, 30 per cent of the UK population could be infected by the A/H1N1 virus, resulting 65,000 fatalities. Even in his best-case scenario (which the newspapers naturally ignored) five per cent of would contract the virus, resulting in 3,100 deaths.
How many confirmed deaths were there in England in the event? One hundred and thirty eight. Each of those deaths, of course, was a tragedy. We just need to be clear about scale: fewer people have died from swine ’flu than succumb annually to seasonal ’flu.
Of course, no one likes to point these things out. When the first reports of swine ’flu came out in 2009, I wrote a Daily Telegraph blog which referred back to the earlier bird ’flu panic, and argued that the menace was exaggerated. I don’t think I have ever had so much abuse from readers – not even in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. I was, they told me, irresponsible, complacent and ignorant. I would have millions of deaths on my hands. Those responses (which I think fairly reflected public opinion during those fraught early days) are why politicians and journalists err on the side of extreme caution.
How does the coronavirus compare with the two previous scares? Its symptoms, generally, are those of a heavy cold. As a rule, viruses that are transmitted by casual contact can’t be too virulent, for solid evolutionary reasons. If they incapacitate their hosts, they make it hard for those hosts to infect others. The successful strategy for a rhinovirus, an adenovirus or a coronavirus is to therefore let their human carriers stay active, so that they continue to interact with other people. Indeed, those viruses are widespread in the human population: we generally call them “colds”. The really nasty diseases are, by and large, spread in ways that don’t limit their virulence – malaria, for example, is transmitted by insects.
Does that mean that we have nothing to fear? No. Any new disease is a potential danger. Occasionally, a pathogen jumps the species barrier with lethal effect: smallpox and measles resulted from this process (“zoonosis”), and both were deadly. Because the Chinese authorities have been opaque in their handling of the coronavirus outbreak, we have less to go on than we would like. Nothing I have written should be taken as a suggestion that we drop our guard or stop taking precautions. But, assuming we do that, there is no reason to panic. Cheer up.