MS. EMILY BERMAN
I'm Emily Berman, in this week for Rebecca Sheir, and welcome back to "Metro Connection." This week our focus is on safety. And we turn now to a topic that isn't generally front-page news in late July, the flu. But the flu is a major topic of conversation right now in China. That's because a new strain called H7N9 has crossed from chickens to humans, and has killed more than 40 people. The latest case was confirmed just this week.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
Those deaths are being closely watched by scientists at the National Institutes of Health, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease. Fauci says when it comes to H7N9, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that is that very few people who come in contact with this flu will actually get it. It's not good at spreading. But, now the bad news…
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI
The sobering news is that, unlike seasonal flu when people get infected, the mortality rate is a fraction of a percent. Whereas, when you're dealing with an infection like H7NP, the mortality is relatively high. You know, it could be 25, 30 percent mortality. So that's the worrisome thing.
So it's hard to catch, but if you do catch it, there's a relatively high chance of it killing you. The mortality rate is what worries Fauci and the researchers at NIH. If the virus were to mutate, and suddenly got really good at spreading, or even, a little better at spreading, that would be very dangerous.
And we're preparing for the unlikely eventuality that it might turn into a problem, but I don't think it is appropriate for the American public to be going around worrying about H7N9. First of all, it isn't in the United States.
In order to follow this and other flues closely, several hundred NIH scientists collaborate with specialists around the world. They write emails, post their findings on the Internet, and send each other samples from their labs. NIH scientists are currently working with the World Health Organization and Chinese scientists on H7N9. But their principal goal goes far beyond this particular strain of flu.
The holy grail of vaccine development is to develop what we call a universal flu vaccine.
In another building on the NIH campus, full of lab space and quiet scientists, Masaru Kanekiyo is showing me around. He's working on that holy grail, the universal flu vaccine.
MR. MASARU KANEKIYO
We can do the DNA work or protein work. We do here.
The flu vaccine has been made the same way for years. The process begins at the end of February, when scientists predict precisely which flu strains will take hold next winter. Then manufacturers, who have contracts with the government, start growing the virus in chicken eggs. It's a deactivated version, so it doesn't actually get you sick. It just helps your body develop an immune response to the flues you might encounter. Around the end of July, right about now, the vaccine manufacturers harvest the vaccine and get it ready to ship in September. But there are issues with what Dr. Fauci calls, "this antiquated technology."
It is not guaranteed that the virus is going to grow well. So if you have a virus that you know that you can predict relatively accurately is going to be the one that's going to hit us next winter -- and there's always this race. Have you matched it well enough? Which usually is the case, not always. And is the production process on target to give us enough vaccine so that when September, October, November and December come and you start vaccinating people, that you have enough vaccine to give?
Fauci says scientists like Masaru Kanekiyo have figured out a way to create a better vaccine, one that basically makes our immune system smarter by showing it parts of the flu virus that are similar from year to year. In animal tests it created an immune response that was 10 times as strong as the traditional flu vaccine. This holy grail vaccine is not yet ready for large scale human trials, but Fauci and others are optimistic they'll have it in hand someday soon, so that when flu season bears down on us we'll be safe from H1N1, H7N9, or any other variation of the virus that comes our way.
If you want to learn more about Masaru Kanekiyo's research on the universal flu vaccine, we have links on our website, metroconnection.org.
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