The presence of flu-free societies raises an important question: could the rest of the world ever be rid of this virus? As it happens, the world is making some tantalising first steps towards this goal.
Back in January 2020, at the end of the Australian summer, the country had 6,962 cases of the flu confirmed via a laboratory test. At this time, Covid-19 was still known only as “the novel coronavirus” and mostly confined to China. Ordinarily, you would have expected to see more and more cases of the flu as the days became shorter and winter descended.
Instead, something unexpected happened. By April there were just 229 cases of the flu – down from 18,705 at the same time the previous year. Covid-19 had already ripped across the world, collectively infecting more than a million people, including the British prime minister, and spreading to every continent except Antarctica. Lockdowns had been imposed, hand-washing had been popularised and mask-wearing had become commonplace – though the latter was still much more widely practiced in Asia than elsewhere.
By August, it was clear that Australia’s flu season had been the mildest on record. In all, there were fewer than a 10th of the infections seen in 2019 – and the vast majority of these occurred before the pandemic hit. This is all against a backdrop of more testing than had ever been conducted before.
The same pattern also occurred elsewhere. The co-head of South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) recently told CBS News that the country “just didn’t have a flu season this year”, while in New Zealand, doctors didn’t detect a single flu case during their annual screening drive, though last year 57% of the swabs they took were positive.
Now winter is over in the Southern Hemisphere and beginning in the North. And though it’s still early in the season, already things look radically different to how they ordinarily would.
As of September, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported the missing flu cases were a global phenomenon, with significantly lower levels than would be expected, from tropical Africa to the Caribbean. For the week beginning 7 September, the flu tracker FluMart recorded just 12 lab-confirmed cases of the flu on the entire planet.
“What we’re seeing in Australia, New Zealand, South America, Hong Kong, are really, really attenuated seasons of not just the flu, but also respiratory syncytial virus (RSV),” says Sarah Cobey, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago.
Peter Palese, a microbiologist and expert in RNA viruses at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York Palese is keen to stress the importance of getting vaccinated against the flu. “Even if it is not completely protective, it is certainly resulting in a more mellow disease – and it’s a very safe vaccine,” he says.
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