Global circulation of influenza viruses, 2018-2021 (WHO FluNet)

In 2020, after the global coronavirus pandemic began, influenza viruses mysteriously disappeared from global circulation (see WHO FluNet chart above). Some skeptics suspected that influenza was simply reclassified as covid, while many journalists and ‘fact checkers’ claimed influenza was suppressed by supereffective face masks and lockdowns.

But influenza has not been reclassified as covid, and influenza viruses have disappeared even in countries without face masks and lockdowns, while they had not disappeared during previous epidemics and pandemics, despite face masks, school closures, and other measures.

Instead, influenza viruses have simply been displaced by the more infectious novel coronavirus. This displacement effect is well known from previous influenza pandemics: the 1918 flu virus was displaced by the 1957 flu virus, which in turn was displaced by the 1968 flu virus (see chart). The 2009 swine flu virus temporarily displaced previous flu viruses, but eventually couldn’t assert itself (see chart). And even during the current coronavirus pandemic, more transmissible virus strains have repeatedly displaced previous coronavirus strains.

A microscopic view of the influenza virus.
(IMAGE: Kat Masback, Flickr)

Why do countries with no covid or with little covid – most of them islands – also have no influenza? Because they closed their borders early. If you don’t import coronavirus, you can’t import influenza viruses, which normally oscillate between the northern and southern hemispheres.

An interesting and open question is whether the novel coronavirus might permanently suppress some or all of the existing influenza virus strains. This might, at last, be a positive development.