Covid-19: The lessons we should take from the Swine Flu outbreak

In this extract from Brian Pottinger’s book, ‘ States of Panic: Covid-19 and the New Medieval’, Pottinger looks back at the 2009 outbreak of Swine Flu. He draws parallels between the global reactions to the two diseases and what spurred the panic on both occasions. Pottinger uses hindsight to evaluate the current worldwide reaction to Covid-19 and whether or not measures to contain the virus (and their consequences) are justified. He also points out that the powerful organisations that define the criteria for pandemics and outbreak control measures are still reacting to these scenarios in the same way, despite lessons learned from the Swine Flu outbreak. – Melani Nathan

Swine Flu : The operational blueprint for Covid-19 a decade later

By Brian Pottinger*

The Swine Flu outbreak of 2009/201 was billed by the World Health Organisation and its associated national health care agencies as the harbinger of mass human fatalities. The public stockpiled food, absenteeism from work soared and a miracle cure called Tamiflu, recommended by the WHO, was widely distributed by terrified governments.

But when the dust settled, the proven WHO death toll was 18 449, the lethality rate was equal to an ordinary influenza outbreak and the miracle cure was shown to reduce the symptoms of the infection by less than six hours. The dread disease was a pussycat and the cure a dud.

How could the WHO and national health care agencies have got it so terribly wrong? The answer provides pointers to the roots of a far greater catastrophe a decade later. The Swine Flu debacle was a dry run for Covid-19.

In this first of three edited extracts from States of Panic: Covid-19 and the New Medieval, author Brian Pottinger uncovers where it all began…

Swine Flu (H1N1) was first detected in the United States in April 2009. It proved to be a quadruple re-assortant coronavirus with a jumble of strains. The number of confirmed infections eventually registered officially by the WHO was 1 632 710 and the number of death 18 449.

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The behaviour of the major health authorities provides a vital pointer to what was to transpire a decade later in the Great Covid-19 Panic of 2020. From the outset, it was apparent that both the WHO and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States determined on an inexplicably alarmist view of this new virus.

The official CDC record of the pandemic confirms that the response was based on an expectation of severe human illness largely because of experiences with Avian Influenza (H5N1), despite there being no scientific basis whatsoever for this assumption. On April 18 2009, the CDC reported the virus to the WHO.

What followed was an extraordinary ramping up of the hysteria around this virus by both organisations – a model to be followed to the letter a decade later.

By April 26 2009, the US Government determined that a public health emergency existed and major communication and isolation initiatives were undertaken at all levels of government. A vaccine had fortuitously been found appropriate to deal with the virus, Roche’s Tamiflu. This drug was approved by the Federal Drug and Food Agency in 1999 but had never enjoyed major support. By 2009, Roche was sitting with warehouses of it when the WHO controversially recommended it for use worldwide.

Three days later the WHO raised its influenza pandemic alert from Level 4 to Level 5, signalling a pandemic was imminent and requesting all countries to trigger their pandemic preparedness plans. The alert raised huge public concern across North America and Europe where stockpiling of foodstuffs began.

In the UK, helplines were set up by the National Health Service so that people could call in and advise of their symptoms. The formulaic advice was to stay in bed and take a course of Tamiflu. Millions did at a huge cost to the national economy and much benefit to the manufacturers of Tamiflu.

But by May 1 2009, the WHO and CDC already had a clear view of the nature of the virus. Genome sequencing showed that the virus had no 1918-Spanish Flu-like markers that could be associated with increased risk of severe illness. Further testing showed there were no genetic markers previously associated with the severe pathogens of Avian Influenza (H5N1).

Other results, meanwhile, were showing that 98% of probable flu viruses were testing positive for 2009 H1N1.

In short, within a month of the virus being notified, the two most important health authorities in the world were fully aware they were dealing with the equivalent of a relatively benign strain of annual flu. And yet they did nothing to dampen the public hysteria: the reverse.

On June 11 2009, the WHO raised the pandemic alert to Level 6 and declared a global pandemic

The CDC’s official history of the pandemic explains it thus: The WHO decision to raise the pandemic alert level was a reflection of the spread of the virus in other parts of the world and not a reflection of any change in the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus or associated illness.

The declaration of a pandemic, with all its implications of severe illness and destruction, was thus no longer to be dependent on an assessment of the severity of the illness , scale, potential destructiveness or speed of its progress, but simply because it had crossed a border.

The change, a huge step towards weaponising the mildest viral outbreak to create panic, would have catastrophic consequences a decade later when political leaders were stampeded into taking terrifyingly inappropriate containment decisions without having the time to establish the facts.

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On May 12 2009, the CDC stopped counting individual cases and relied on aggregate reporting of confirmed and “probable” cases. On July 23 2009 the CDC took another step in mystifying the process. It implausibly announced that the number of cases had increased beyond the point of counting individual cases. Henceforth, said the CDC, it would report hospitalisations and deaths but use “traditional surveillance methods” to assess the number of cases.

The implications of that became clear the minute the pandemic was ended in August 2010 amidst huge public criticism about the pandemic management and modelling. Subsequent “surveillance modelling” by the WHO and CDC declared the death toll not to be the 18 449 deaths credibly established by laboratory testing but in a range from 151 700 to a mind-blowing 575 400. These new deaths, we were told, occurred in Latin America, Africa and Asia where, of course, statistics are less easy to verify than in the developed world and where local health authorities are deeply beholden to the WHO’s largesse and influence.

A WHO-supported survey in 2013 estimated the 2009 global pandemic respiratory mortality rate was 10-fold higher than the original laboratory tested toll, an estimate which coincided suspiciously with what would in any case have been that year’s seasonal flu toll. The WHO, in its effort to deal with mounting public criticism and anger, had post-factor statistically expropriated all flu cases to the Swine Flu brand to justify its doom-laden and alarmist initial projections.

But, ironically, it proved a home goal. The Case Fatality Rate for this “dread pandemic”, initially estimated at 0.5%, was subsequently set at 0.05% and then determined in a joint American-British research project to be as low as 0.026% compared to a traditional seasonal flu rate of 0.1%. Research published in The Journal of American Medicine, meanwhile, claimed the Swine Flu epidemic of 2009-10 was no more severe than the seasonal flu.

In January 2010, Wolfgang Wodarg, a Deputy in the German Bundestag and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, publicly accused the WHO of deliberately creating a false pandemic by declaring normal flu cases as the start of a new pandemic without a scientific basis. It was to serve the interests of big pharmaceutical companies, he claimed. This was followed by media reporting in June of that year that some of the experts advising the WHO had ties with pharmaceutical companies.

The WHO denied the accusations and convened a panel to investigate the charges. It had not reported a decade later and the WHO has to this day refused to reveal the names of the “experts” that advised it.

The European Assembly of the Council of Europe did, however, set up a formal inquiry into the management of the 2009 Swine Flu Fiasco and its Social Health and Family Affairs Committee under Rapporteur Paul Flynn reported in June 2010 in the form of a draft resolution.

It is worth examining at some length. It is a chilling foretaste of what was to happen a decade later.

The Parliamentary Assembly inquiry expressed alarm about the way in which the H1N1 influenza pandemic has been handled, not only by the World Health Organisation (WHO) but also by the competent (national) health authorities. “It is particularly troubled by some of the consequences of decisions taken and advice given leading to distortion of priorities of public health services across Europe, waste of large sums of public money and also unjustified scares and fears about health risks faced by the European public at large”.

The draft resolution also slated the WHO for not moving to revise or re-evaluate its position on the pandemic and the real health risks involved, “despite the overwhelming evidence that the seriousness of the pandemic was vastly over-rated by the WHO at the outset’’

The interpretation of the scientific and empirical evidence was questioned and an epidemiologist quoted as saying: “the importance of the influenza is completely overestimated: It has to do with research funds, power, influence and scientific reputations.”

“It was precisely this lack of watertight evidence about the influenza phenomenon which led to the fears of the pandemic being exaggerated and the subsequent disproportionate response.”

The draft resolution observed that many countries had difficulties in clearly distinguishing between patients dying with swine flu (i.e. showing symptoms of swine flu but dying of other pathologies) and patients dying of swine flu (i.e. swine flu being the main lethal cause) which might have “falsified” some of the statistics on which later public health decisions were founded.

The resolution also tackled the critical question of pandemic definitions, finding that the WHO rapidly moved towards pandemic Level 6 at a time when the influenza presented relatively mild symptoms and that its definition of pandemic allowed one to be declared without the need to show that it was likely to be severe in terms of its impact on the population.

Lastly, it raised questions about the connection between pharmaceutical company officials and the WHO bureaucracy: “Another factor which nurtured suspicions about undue influence was that the pharmaceutical companies had a strong vested interest in the declaration of the pandemic and subsequent arrangements regarding any new influenza vaccines.”

The resolution was never bought to the vote, reportedly due to political pressure, foremost from Germany, a major pharmaceutical manufacturer. In a repost to this criticism, the WHO published in a 2011 Bulletin an article by Heath Kelly declaring that the Swine Flu epidemic was in fact a classic pandemic. But, extraordinarily, the article conceded the following:

  • The pandemic was much less severe than many anticipated or were prepared to acknowledge, even as the evidence accumulated.
  • The response had been justified as being precautionary, but a precautionary response should be rational and proportionate and should have a chance of success.
  • Risk is assessed by anticipation of severity and precautions should be calibrated to risk.

Every one of these caveats were ignored in the WHO’s response to Covid-19 a decade later and the measures it sought to impose on all its member nations were neither rational nor proportionate. Indeed, the Swine Flu Panic was to serve as the business and operational plan for Covid-19 and some of the key personalities driving the Swine Flu Panic were a decade later in senior positions in the CDC directing the Covid-19 Panic.

But there was one key difference: in 2009/10 the severity of the outbreak was justified by post-fact modelling. In 2020, the infection and fatality numbers, and hence the severity of the outbreak, would be expanded by constant changes to the surveillance, reporting, recording and verification processes which had the direct effect of inflating numbers, as we will see in the second instalment of these extracts.

In 2009/10, the world had continued its blithe existence with Swine Flu as a concerning but still peripheral phenomenon. By 2020, however, the world was in its new medieval stage. The actions of the modellers, politicians and healthcare bureaucrats played straight into the fabricated and institutionalised atmosphere of fear and paranoia of the general public. It brought the developed world to its knees.

And the wonder antidote recommended by the WHO? A study by Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Health Care in April 2014 reported that Tamiflu reduced the symptoms of the infection by less than six hours. A later devastating report in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology in January 2015 claimed the drug had serious side-effects and had been launched without proper testing. The authors of the report were highly critical of the WHO for ever recommending it.

States of Panic: Covid-19 and the New Medieval by Brian Pottinger is available from Amazon and Smashwords. Next Extract: Everyman’s Guide On How To Reach a Million Plus Covid-19 Deaths in Eight Months.

  • Brian Pottinger is a former Editor and Publisher of The Sunday Times.
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