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The flu isn't generally front-page news in late July. But in China, 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.
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.
When it comes to H7N9, Fauci says, there's good news and 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.
"The sobering news," Fauci says, "is that the mortality is relatively high. It could be 25 to 20 percent mortality." Compare that to the seasonal flu, which kills no more than a fraction of 1 percent.
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.
"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 going around worrying about H7N9," Fauci says. First of all, it isn't in the United States. And should it become a problem, health officials can develop a vaccine.
In order to follow this and other flus 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 the flu. The holy grail of vaccine development is the universal flu vaccine -- one shot that could protect from many flu strains, potentially over many years.
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. Then, manufacturers who have contracts with the government start growing the virus in chicken eggs. But, it's a deactivated version, so it doesn't actually get you sick. It just helps your body develop an immune response to the flus 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 with this "antiquated technology," there's no guarantee that the virus will grow well, or that scientists have correctly predicted the strains that will take hold.
Faucci says scientists like Masaru Kanekiyo, working on NIH's Bethesda campus, have figured out a way to create a better vaccine 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 creates an immune response that's 10 times as strong as the traditional flu vaccine.
This holy grail vaccine is not yet ready for large scale human trials, but Faucci 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.
[Music: "Bring Back Pluto (Instrumental) by Aesop Rock from None Shall Pass]