Is There A Threat Of A Flu Pandemic That's Deadlier Than COVID-19?

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it is safe to assume that nobody wants to go through another pandemic in their lifetime. If we are lucky, then maybe we won't, but as the National Academy of Medicine warns, anything is possible, and a future pandemic (especially if it is flu-related) may end up being even deadlier than COVID-19.

COVID-19 has taken the lives of over 5 million people worldwide in less than two years, yet the National Academy of Medicine points out that even this "does not represent a 'worst-case' pandemic scenario, such as the 1918-19 influenza, which resulted in at least 50 million deaths worldwide," even in a time when the global population was far lower than it is today. The Academy notes that a future flu pandemic could kill around 33 million people.

It's hard to pinpoint when such a pandemic will take place, but since flu pandemics have cropped up so often throughout history (with three in the 20th century alone), another flu pandemic is basically inevitable, according to the Academy.

"Influenza pandemics have occurred repeatedly, and experts worry that the risk for an influenza pandemic may be even higher during the COVID-19 era due to changes in global and regional conditions affecting humans, animals, and their contact patterns. While it is difficult to predict when it will occur, a major influenza pandemic is more a matter of 'when' than 'if.'"

How we need to prepare for a flu pandemic

We may not be able to prevent a future flu pandemic from emerging, but preparation can still go a long way in saving lives. The development of a universal flu vaccine would be particularly helpful. Our current flu vaccines target specific strains, and would not offer protection from new strains that would spark a pandemic. The National Academy of Medicine advocates for a universal flu vaccine that would protect against all current and future flu strains, and having 4 to 8 billion doses ready to go in case a new pandemic emerges.

If vaccines are not immediately available, then the National Academy of Medicine reports that we should be prepared for countermeasures such as masks and physical distancing. These countermeasures have proven effective at reducing flu activity during the COVID-19 pandemic and would likely do the same during a future flu pandemic, according to the Academy.