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Vicious flu season has scientists looking for better way to produce vaccines


The winter of our discontent drags on. That discontent has a name: the flu. Our nation is in the middle of an especially bad – and deadly – flu season. And, even as we are told we should get a flu shot, we're hearing that this year's flu vaccine isn't very effective.

Let's talk about why this is, and whether it's time to re-think our approach to preventing the flu.

Dr. Arnold Monto is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan and an internationally-recognized influenza expert. He joined Stateside today.

Listen to the conversation above, or read highlights below.

On why this flu season is so awful

"It is a bad season. We would not have predicted it would have been so bad, because we have the same type of influenza predominating, what we call AH3N2, as we had last year. And maybe we're not getting hit quite as bad in Michigan as in other parts of the country because we had a fair amount of that kind of flu around last year. But it's hard to say. What's clear is  that it's been bad all over, and it's a question of bad or worse.

"The kind of flu we're having, which is AH3N2, is known to be the worst actor. We have type A, we have type B, and we have two kinds of type A, and this is the worst actor of them all. What's happening is we have a double whammy: we have a lot of transmission of a bad flu virus. And what is probably going on as well is the vaccine isn't working as well as we would like."

On whether you should get still a flu vaccine

"It is probably still reasonable to get a shot. I'm quibbling a little bit, because I think we may be at the top or beginning to pass the top of the flu season. It takes a couple of weeks to get immunity. But we've had flu seasons extending into April. And I suspect what's gonna happen is that by the end of February, a lot of the excitement will be passed, but we'll have some rumbling flu for the next couple of months. It might switch over to another type, all of which are contained in the vaccine."

If you didn’t get a vaccine and got the flu, should you get the vaccine now?

"You can catch [the flu] again. The timing is getting a little late. Probably if you haven’t been vaccinated by the end of February, it won’t be worth it. But we have to remember, we do have an anti-viral that works against influenza. It’s underused but it has been useful, especially if you get it earlier. That is Tamiflu."

On imagining a better flu vaccine

People talk about a universal vaccine, which means it doesn’t have to be changed every year to meet what’s circulating. The problem is we have to predict. There’s going to be a meeting at WHO and another meeting at FDA on the first of March, and they’re going to pick the vaccine strains for next year on the basis of whatever information we have now. The virus can change and when it needs to be used. That's part of the problem.

"The other part is we produce the vaccine in eggs. And the eggs with this bad H3N2 virus, the virus mutates in order to grow well in eggs, and therefore what we are getting is different from what is circulating, and that's the other problem.

But these are soluble problems. But we want a to have vaccine that has two characteristics that we don’t have now: broader protection, so we can protect against more than exactly what is in the vaccine and longer duration, so we don’t have to get vaccinated every year."

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