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What COVID-19 revealed about preventing pandemic influenza

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You’re not helpless against a deadly virus: get a flu shot

It’s too early to predict how the 2019-nCoV outbreak will unfold, it’s not too late to protect yourself and everyone around you from a deadly virus.

Original post date : Jan 28 2020

A woman wears a mask to protect against the flue

Spreading like the virus itself across global networks, fear of the novel pathogen designated 2019-nCoV this week roiled financial markets, reflecting the potential toll of widespread illness. In the month since it was recognized in the city of Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, 2019-nCoV has been detected in 18 countries, including five confirmed cases in the United States.

The vast majority of 2019-nCoV confirmed cases—more than 4,500 to date—have occurred in Wuhan. More than 100 people have died from the virus, but no deaths from 2019-nCoV have yet been reported outside China.

Meanwhile, the CDC estimates that in the United States alone, seasonal influenza has infected more than 15 million people and caused more than 8,000 deaths—with weeks to months of flu season ahead. Worldwide, seasonal influenza kills an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 people every year. By comparison, emergent coronavirus infections SARS and MERS each caused fewer than 1,000 deaths worldwide.

Concerns over 2019-nCoV are not misplaced and should be heeded, but the annual threat of seasonal influenza demands equal attention, instead of widespread complacency. Even more urgent action is needed to prepare for the novel influenza virus that someday will emerge to assault our vulnerable species, much as did the 1918-19 strain that killed an estimated 50 million people. The devastation such a pathogen could cause in today’s interconnected world has been compared to the history-altering effects of the Black Death, on a global scale.

Vaccines are our best defense against each of these threats, whether it’s the latest virulent coronavirus, this flu season’s peculiar mix of viral strains, or an influenza virus for which the human immune system is completely unprepared.  NIH’s ambitious program to develop an RNA vaccine against 2019-nCoVaims to move from DNA sequence to human testing in a record-setting three months—a feat that took 20 months during the 2003 SARS outbreak.  By then, the pandemic was extinguished, thanks in large part to the virus’s relatively low contagiousness. Having our best preventive measures in place and utilized will always be a more certain bet than hoping for the luck of unsustained transmission rates.

While it’s too early to predict how the 2019-nCoV outbreak will unfold, it’s not too late to protect yourself and everyone around you from a deadly virus—influenza—by getting a flu shot. If the coronavirus epidemic intensifies, fewer people with flu means less pressure on health resources in an emergency, and fewer people exposed to 2019-nCoV in the course of seeking care for influenza symptoms. CDC estimates that during the last influenza season, vaccination helped prevent 4.4 million illnesses, 58,000 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in the U.S.—despite the fact that fewer than half of all adults, and less than two thirds of children, received the vaccine.

Today’s influenza vaccines are far from ideal, however, since they must be reformulated and administered each year, in anticipation of mutating seasonal strains.  What the world needs is a flu vaccine that provides long-lasting immunity against many strains: a universal influenza vaccine. Not only would it reduce the persistent burden of seasonal influenza; a universal influenza vaccine offers the best possible protection against an emerging, novel strain for which the world is now woefully unprepared. Read more about key challenges and bold recommendations for accelerating the development of a universal influenza vaccine in our latest report.