NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC October 2005: The Next Killer Flu – Can we stop it?

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC October 2005: The Next Killer Flu – Can we stop it?

The whole world is in a lockdown in varying ways due to the pandemic Covid-19. Airports are shut, aeroplanes for passenger travel are disallowed. Railway stations are deserted, while some passenger trains are converted into hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients. Roads that are big and small are completely without vehicular traffic saving for those who are on mandatory journeys related to work in a hospital or to deliver medicines or essential items for survival. And, people are maintaining social distancing.

Since the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared Coronavirus disease, Covid-19, as pandemic on 11 March 2020, the conversation around the world has been focussed on Covid-19. It was the first time that the WHO had declared a pandemic over a coronavirus. “We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity (of COVID-19), and by the alarming levels of inaction,” said Tedros Adhanom, the director general of WHO declared. “We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”


Who would have had predicted that the world in 2020 would be in a lockdown? The NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine in its October 2005 issue carried a cover story titled: The Next Killer Flu: Can we stop it? It was a time when the avian bird flu was sweeping through Southeast Asian countries especially Vietnam and Thailand.


The magazine reported about a ten-year-old girl in Vietnamese countryside who died of ‘a virus responsible for the death of 40 million chickens spread from farmyard fowl to this young child’. The editor in chief of the magazine Chris Johns asked in the editorial page: “How it made the leap from chickens remains a mystery, but then flu viruses have habitually stumped experts.”

In 2020, the viruses have stumped the whole world, unlike never seen or heard before. The world is grappling with the Covid-19 the pandemic.


The cover feature in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine’s October 2005 issue was written by the science editor Tim Appenzeller with photography by Lynn Johnson. The feature story was ‘a high-stakes detective story that beings in the Vietnamese countryside. Tim Appenzeller wrote, “What is known about flu viruses’ remarkable capacity to change and jump species has led to a sense of inevitability, a conviction that even if this menacing animal flu doesn’t explode into a global pandemic that kills millions, another will. ‘It’s going to happen, at some point, that a virus like this changes to be able to transmit from one person to another,’ says Jeremy Farrar, an Oxford University doctor who works on the front lines of avian flu at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. ‘It’s bound to happen. And when it does, the world is going to face a truly horrible pandemic.’ After all, it has happened before.”

The Covid-19 has stumped the world again: the pandemic is everywhere. The medical scientists are working on a vaccine to contain and prevent the disease; the governments are looking for ways to control the pandemic, brutal lockdowns and socially-responsible lockdowns; but the number of Covid-19 positive cases are rising.

Will the world learn lessons from Covid-19? There have been pandemics in the past. Spanish flu in 1918 (except for a few Pacific islanders, the world was exposed to the disease, and half got sick), and the lesser pandemics named Asian flu in 1957, and Hong Kong flu in 1968.


Covid-19 is the first full-scale pandemic of the 21st century. It has reminded the world how viruses can act and react, mutate and change, beyond their comprehension. And the need for good journalism with insightful factual stories is there unlike never before.

Covid-19 is disease that affects lungs and airways of a human being, caused by a virus named coronavirus. Its symptoms are fever, tiredness, fatigue, dry cough, and shortness of breath. The symptoms appear in a person after she or he is infected with the coronavirus between 2 days to two weeks. Social distancing and taking measures as washing one’s hands with soap and water are recommended to prevent infection. There is no vaccine to prevent Covid-19. The disease spreads from one person to another when a Covid-19 positive person’s droplets (sneezed or coughed) in the air, and when the droplets are touched when they happen to land on a surface or exhaled by a person without Covid-19.

Human coronaviruses have crown-like spikes on their surface, and they were identified in the 1960s. They are categorised into four subgroups: alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. The common human coronaviruses that people get infected with are 229E (alpha coronavirus), NL63 (alpha coronavirus), OC43 (beta coronavirus), and HKU1 (beta coronavirus). Other human coronaviruses are MERS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – MERS), SARS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome – SARS) and SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 or COVID-19). The findings are that coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve and when they are passed into humans they become new human coronaviruses such as 2019-nCoV, SARS-CoV, and MERS-CoV.

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