Our view: Fo­cus on the flu virus, not just the lat­est new virus

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS -

When Ebola struck with a vengeance in West Africa in 2014 or SARS was re­ported in Asia in 2003, the viruses dom­i­nated the news and Amer­i­cans were gripped by fear over the po­ten­tial spread in the United States.

In the end, Ebola, while tak­ing an enor­mous toll in Africa, killed two peo­ple in Amer­ica, nei­ther of whom con­tracted the dis­ease in this coun­try. SARS was di­ag­nosed in just eight U.S. pa­tients, and all re­cov­ered.

But the flu, nei­ther ex­otic nor rare, gar­ners too lit­tle at­ten­tion and too few re­sources. It strikes mil­lions of Amer­i­cans and has killed any­where from 12,000 to 56,000 an­nu­ally in re­cent years. This year, in a par­tic­u­larly vir­u­lent flu sea­son, 63 chil­dren have al­ready died, along with many peo­ple in the prime of life. And this flu sea­son still has weeks to go.

To­day, the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion is sched­uled to re­lease a re­port on the flu vac­cine's ef­fec­tive­ness this sea­son, which is ex­pected to be rel­a­tively low for adults. (None­the­less, au­thor­i­ties say it’s still worth get­ting a flu shot, par­tic­u­larly for chil­dren.) Even in the best of years, the vac­cine is at most 60% ef­fec­tive.

How could this be for such a well­known and rou­tine dis­ease? The an­swer is that the flu is un­pre­dictable.

While the flu comes around ev­ery win­ter, says An­thony Fauci, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases, each sea­son is “rel­a­tively unique.” The in­fluenza virus mu­tates from year to year, what sci­en­tists call “ge­netic drift.” Un­like the measles vac­cine, for ex­am­ple, the flu re­quires an up­dated vac­cine each year to fight it.

The vac­ci­na­tion that gets pro­duced for the USA is based on an in­tel­li­gent, cal­cu­lated guess based in part on what hap­pens dur­ing flu sea­son in the South­ern Hemi­sphere. And when the vac­cine and the cir­cu­lat­ing flu viruses are poorly matched, as ap­pears to be the case this year, more sick­ness and more deaths can oc­cur.

An­other prob­lem is that most flu vac­cines are pro­duced by grow­ing viruses in eggs, an old sys­tem that might be less ef­fec­tive than newer meth­ods such as grow­ing viruses in cells or with molec­u­lar tech­niques that don’t in­volve grow­ing the virus.

The big­gest pay­off would come with pro­duc­tion of a “uni­ver­sal vac­cine” — one that would pro­tect against mul­ti­ple ver­sions of the flu for years, elim­i­nate an­nual vac­ci­na­tions, and be con­sis­tently ef­fec­tive. The tough part is fig­ur­ing out how to pro­duce such a vac­cine — a task that takes re­search, re­sources, tri­als and time.

Sen. Ed­ward Markey of Mas­sachusetts and seven fel­low Democrats are set to in­tro­duce a mea­sure to­day to pro­vide $1 bil­lion over the next five years for this ef­fort. That’s a big chunk of change. But the CDC spent nearly $800 mil­lion on Ebola, money well spent to help find a vac­cine for be­lea­guered Africans and to keep the dis­ease from spread­ing around the world.

For all the at­ten­tion on viruses such as Ebola, SARS, Zika and West Nile, in­fluenza re­mains the big­gest killer. Surely, Amer­ica should in­vest in a bet­ter way to pro­tect against a dis­ease that sick­ens mil­lions, costs bil­lions of dol­lars in lost pro­duc­tiv­ity and is fa­tal to thou­sands of Amer­i­cans each year.

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