Influenza pandemic could infect 43 million people in UK, University of Cambridge research finds for BBC's Contagion! show
Up to 886,000 could be killed, citizen science project concludes
An influenza pandemic could infect 43 million people in the UK – and kill up to 886,000, according to a citizen science project that is the largest of its kind.
Based on models designed by researchers at the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the results were broadcast on Contagion! The BBC Four Pandemic last month and published in the journal Epidemics.
Nearly 30,000 volunteers took part in the project by downloading an app from the App Store or Google Play, entering some basic anonymous demographic information such as their age and gender, then allowing themselves to be tracked via the GPS on their phone once an hour for 24 hours.
The BBC Pandemic app, launched in September 2017, also recorded the people with which they came into close contact. The data was used to work out how fast a new flu epidemic might spread.
Professor Julia Gog, from Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, who heads the disease dynamics group, said: “The value of predictions hinges completely on the quality of the model. Up to now, the picture of how the population in the UK move around has been surprisingly limited, and existing studies use relatively small samples of the population.
“Getting a handle on how people move and interact day to day is vital to understanding how a virus will actually spread from person to person and place to place.
“The BBC Pandemic project has aimed to address this gap, with volunteers using an app to track movements and record who they encounter day to day, creating the biggest dataset for UK pandemic research ever collected.
“We don’t know of any studies that join up the movement and survey data so comprehensively. And this experiment is just huge already, an order of magnitude bigger than anything even similar.
“The BBC Pandemic experiment sets a new benchmark for other future studies around the world.”
Dr Petra Klepac, the lead author of the paper, added: “The BBC Pandemic experiment has been hugely successful in recruiting study participants. The resulting dataset is incredibly rich and will become a new gold standard in modelling contact and movement patterns that shape the spread of infectious diseases.”
Experts agree it is a question of when, not if, the next deadly pandemic will strike. The issue is top of the UK’s government civilian risk register.
It will need to answer a series of critical questions when a pandemic strikes, such as whether to close schools or public transport, how to manage if there is a high death toll and who should be given the first doses when a vaccine is available.
Mathematical models will be key to answering such questions.
The BBC Four show showed how a pandemic starting with a patient zero in Haslemere, Surrey, might spread.
The simulation’s key results were based on a moderately transmissible influenza pandemic virus with a high fatality rate – a ‘reasonable worst case’.
Dr Hannah Fry, the programme’s host, said: “While these preliminary results are eye-opening, there’s a lot more this data can be used for. Scientists around the country will be using it for years to come.”