Britain’s Covid lockdown architect once warned that up to 200million people could die worldwide during a bird flu pandemic.
Professor Neil Ferguson, tasked with forecasting coronavirus-style scenarios in case the pathogen mutates to spread among humans easier, made the dire prediction in 2005 when fears of an avian influenza crisis were similarly high.
It comes as two cases of the deadly H5N1 strain have been confirmed in Cambodia, following the death of an 11-year-old girl due to the virus. Her father is also infected, while a dozen more people are being tested.
The case has sparked concerns that the virus could be spreading between humans.
The Government has now stepped up its preparation for a UK outbreak, with officials modelling how bird flu may take off among people and probing whether Covid-style lateral flow tests could detect the virus.
Among those working on the models is Professor Neil Ferguson (pictured), an epidemiologist whose projections of the Covid outbreak led the UK Government to impose the first lockdown
Imperial College London published a paper in March 2020 on the potential impact of coronavirus. It weighed up options on how a lockdown could reduce demand on hospitals
Official contingency plans, drawn up 18 years ago, warned of a death toll of up to 710,000 in the UK alone due to flu.
It was published during the heightened concerns about bird flu.
The 710,000 figure is based on half of the population becoming infected, with a fatality rate of around 2.5 per cent.
That doomsday death toll is three times higher than that of Covid pandemic, which stands at around 220,000 since March 2020.
The Avian Influenza Technical Group, part of the UK Health Security Agency, is now working on fresh modelling scenarios on how bird flu could take off in Britain.
Professor Ferguson, an epidemiologist whose chilling projections of the Covid outbreak led the Government to impose the first lockdown, is one of those in the group.
Bird flu outbreak: Everything you need to know
What is it?
Avian flu is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among birds.
In rare cases, it can be transmitted to humans through close contact with a dead or alive infected bird.
This includes touching infected birds, their droppings or bedding. People can also catch bird flu if they kill or prepare infected poultry for eating.
Wild birds are carriers, especially through migration.
As they cluster together to breed, the virus spreads rapidly and is then carried to other parts of the globe.
New strains tend to appear first in Asia, from where more than 60 species of shore birds, waders and waterfowl head off to Alaska to breed and mix with migratory birds from the US. Others go west and infect European species.
What strain is currently spreading?
So far the new virus has been detected in some 80million birds and poultry globally since September 2021 — double the previous record the year before.
Not only is the virus spreading at speed, it is also killing at an unprecedented level, leading some experts to say this is the deadliest variant so far.
Millions of chickens and turkeys in the UK have been culled or put into lockdown, affecting the availability of Christmas turkey and free-range eggs.
Can it infect people?
Yes, but only 860 human cases have been reported to the World Health Organization since 2003.
The risk to people has been deemed ‘low’.
But people are strongly urged not to touch sick or dead birds because the virus is lethal, killing 56 per cent of people it does manage to infect.
Under a ‘mild scenario’, the scientists estimate that one in 400 people who catch bird flu would die due to the virus.
This infection fatality rate (IFR) of 0.25 per cent is similar to Covid’s in mid-2021 and the 2009 swine flu outbreak.
But under a ‘more severe scenario’, the virus would be fatal among one in 40 people who became infected (an IFR of 2.5 per cent) — just like in the contingency plans published in 2005.
However, the virus has an actual case-fatality rate of around 50 per cent in humans.
Professor Ferguson, who has advised No10 for two decades, has a ‘patchy’ record on modelling, however, according to critics.
The Imperial College London epidemiologist drew heavy flak for his team’s modelling on the Covid pandemic.
His original apocalyptic conclusion that up to 500,000 Brits could die if nothing was done to stop the spread of Covid spooked then-PM Boris Johnson into lockdown.
It saw schools, shops and hospitality close, social distancing come into force and Brits only allowed to exercise outdoors once a day.
Experts largely accepted that the economically-crippling measures were vital to control the spread of the virus, as there was no vaccine to prevent severe illness and stunt hospital admissions at the time.
But other epidemiologists and public health scientists shared ‘grave concerns’ about the collateral damages of such policies on the NHS and other parts of society in future.
The wave ended up being much less severe than Professor Ferguson predicted, leading some to call the modelling ‘totally unreliable’.
Others insist that lockdown is why cases didn’t reach the eye-watering levels set out in Professor Ferguson’s models.
He made other gloomy models throughout the pandemic, and later accepted that some were ‘off’.
Professor Ferguson was also, according to insiders, instrumental in modelling which led to the cull of more than 6million animals during the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001.
The move was estimated to cost the UK £10billion and left rural Britain economically devastated.
The epidemiologist and his colleagues concluded that ‘extensive culling’ was the only option to control the epidemic.
Pictured: A notice board warns people against feeding the birds in Regent’s Park in London due to rise in bird flu
Brits have told MailOnline that Defra call handlers at the ‘overwhelmed’ service are advising them to put carcasses into the bin themselves without recommending any PPE. Pictured: A swan on the River Thames in Windsor, Berkshire
Pictured: A National Trust ranger clears deceased birds from Staple Island in July 2022
Professor Michael Thrusfield, a veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said the model was ‘severely flawed’ and made incorrect assumptions about how foot and mouth disease was transmitted.
But Professor Ferguson has defended Imperial’s foot and mouth work, saying they were doing ‘modelling in real time’ with ‘limited data’. He added: ‘I think the broad conclusions reached were still valid.’
In 2009, his modelling suggested a ‘realistic worst-case scenario’ would see 65,000 die due to swine flu outbreak. Around 450 died due to the virus.
In terms of bird flu, Professor Lockdown did not previously model the outbreak.
But he told The Guardian in August 2005 that up to 200million people — equivalent to the entire combined population of the UK, France, Spain, Portugal and Belgium — could be wiped out across the world during a bird flu pandemic.
He said: ‘Around 40million people died in 1918 Spanish flu outbreak.
‘There are six-times more people on the planet now so you could scale it up to around 200 million people probably.’
Professor Ferguson’s comments were made when the global population stood at 6.56billion.
But the number of people on the planet hit 8billion at the end of last year — which suggests the death toll could hit 244million if the outbreak occurred now.
It comes as health chiefs in Cambodia are rushing to contain an outbreak, after an 11-year-old girl died from bird flu on Wednesday.
She had started suffering from a fever, cough and sore throat last week and was taken to a children’s hospital in Phnom Penh, the capital. However, she died shortly after doctors confirmed she was infected.
It marks the first known human case of H5N1 in the country in nine years, which was last detected among people in 2014. In the last two decades, 56 cases and 37 deaths due to the strain have been logged in Cambodia.
The girl’s father subsequently tested positive, raising fears the virus may be spreading among humans. A dozen others have also been tested.
The UKHSA yesterday said it will ‘remain vigilant’ over whether the ‘constantly’ evolving virus, which kills over half of those it infects, has gained mutations that may better allow it to spread among people.
It also noted that the ‘very high levels’ of transmission in wild birds present a ‘constant risk’.
The agency said that there is ‘no evidence so far that the virus is getting better at infecting humans or other mammals’ and data suggests H5N1 ‘does not pass easily to people’.
But it warned there is an ‘increased chance’ of people coming into contact with the virus due to the sky-high rates among birds.
It urged Brits to avoid contact with sick or dead wild birds in parks and waterways and wash their hands after feeding wild birds to reduce the risk of exposure to bird flu.