Much like a winter storm, this year’s strain of the flu is notorious enough to have a name: “Killer Aussie Flu,” more formally known as H3N2. Always a cause for feverish misery, this form of Type A influenza caused soaring rates of infection, hospitalization, and death when it hit Australia in July and August. By early January, it had reached most of the United States, overwhelming emergency rooms and leading to the deaths of at least 30 children nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’re dealing with a bad actor,” says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. This strain of flu strikes hardest at the most vulnerable: those with underlying conditions, the elderly, and children.
But don’t blame Australia. Even if you got a flu shot, this season’s vaccine was only 10 percent effective when it was deployed Down Under, and is expected to be only 30 percent effective in the United States. This vaccine mismatch is precisely why Fauci and a group of medical experts, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, are calling for a transformative approach to flu research — one that would lead to development of a universal vaccine that could be deployed worldwide no matter what the strain. Flu vaccine production hasn’t changed much in decades — vaccines are grown in eggs, which gives the fast-moving virus time to mutate. Indeed, according to researchers, sometimes the flu strain shape-shifts after health officials have already made a decision about which vaccine to manufacture, rendering the shot ineffective.
The flu isn’t just a First World problem, either. Epidemics regularly sweep around the globe, causing up to 5 million cases and as many as a half-million deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization.
Health officials in the United States and elsewhere should accelerate research into more modern manufacturing techniques — knowledge of molecular biology and refinements in recombinant DNA technology have transformed other areas of medical research in recent years and could prove instrumental here.
Progress will also require dedicated funding. The Trump administration slashed the budget of the National Institutes of Health, although Congress restored the cuts through a continuing resolution. But a universal vaccine is a critical public health need, Fauci said. “We really need to put in a lot of effort. I’m making it one of the highest priorities of my institute, even if I have to move money around,” he said.
Researchers make one thing clear: Even though the vaccine is imperfect, it’s still important to get a flu shot. The CDC estimates that flu vaccination prevented 40,000 deaths nationwide between 2005 and 2014. And if you do get the flu, a flu shot can curtail its severity. “What makes me most concerned is that people are shying away from the vaccine,” Dr. Jenifer L. Jaeger, interim medical director of the Boston Public Health Commission, told the Globe’s Felice Freyer. Universal vaccine or not, when it comes to the flu, something is better than nothing.