Thirty thousand people in Britain are likely to have been already infected by swine flu, one of the country's leading authorities has told The Independent on Sunday.
This would mean that the virus is 300 times more widespread than the Health Protection Agency (HPA) admits.
The startling estimate by top virologist Professor John Oxford comes as leading scientists are warning that the agency's announcements on the spread of the disease are "meaningless" and hiding its true extent.
And it tallies with official estimates made in the United States. Yet the World Health Organisation (WHO) late last week changed its rules in order to avoid declaring that the flu has become a pandemic after pleas from governments, led by Britain.
Professor Oxford, of Queen Mary, University of London, believes that thousands of people have caught the virus and suffered only the most minor symptoms, or none at all, over the past weeks, as the new strain of H1N1 has spread nationwide – welcome testimony to the mildness of the epidemic to date.
He also thinks that some 100,000 people will have been infected in the US – the same number as is being privately estimated by experts at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and another 30,000 in Japan, where swine flu was spreading rapidly last week.
This contrasts with the number of officially tested and confirmed cases recorded by the WHO, which now stands at 11,168 in 42 countries on every continent except Africa.
So far just 86 deaths have been ascribed to the disease, all of them in North and Central America, including 75 in Mexico.
Britain has the most official cases in Europe, at 122, with another 169 under investigation. But the figure, put out by the HPA, is increasingly coming to be seen as unrealistic. And it is certainly rising extraordinarily slowly, merely increasing from 82 a week ago and 39 the week before that, while normally the numbers affected by an infectious disease multiply rapidly.