The flu season started in October, and at least five North Carolinians had died from the virus as of Nov. 30.
While health-care professionals view flu shots as the most effective way to ward off the disease, the vaccinations are not perfect.
But researchers at Duke are working on a method that could make the production of flu vaccine more timely and efficient.
Nicholas Heaton, assistant professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke, is trying to better the odds of picking the right flu strain and in turn being able to ramp up production of the most effective vaccine. Recently, He and his colleagues had a breakthrough that could result in more vaccine being produced in a shorter period of time. Their research findings were published in the journal “mBio.”
“Right now the process is reasonably slow,” Heaton said. “Companies have to start making the vaccines in the spring even though you won’t administer them until winter or the late fall.”
Companies produce flu vaccines in chicken eggs, which provide the best environment for the virus to grow. But there are many variables and the possibilty of mutations which can hamper vaccine production.
And when production starts, they’re making a calculated choice on which strains of flu will be most prevalent during the upcoming season. They base it on predictions by the World Health Organization. A wrong choice means a less effective vaccine.
Heaton’s research has discovered a method for increasing the amount of vaccine that can be produced from each egg. They’re trying to refine the method so that it can be used in large-scale production. The benefit would be two-fold.
First, the ability to produce more vaccine would allow for more widespread distribution. And the offshoot of that benefit would be that production decisions could be made later in the spring when there is a better idea of which strain of flu to target. They’ve also been able to produce a vaccine with fewer mutations that traditionally have reduced their effectiveness when administered.
“Presumably, you can shorten the production time because you would know you’re picking the right strain,” Heaton said. “The closer you are to flu season when you pick the strain, the better you are going to be at picking the right one.”
Heaton said they’ve been able to produce small amounts of vaccine from strains that were important in previous years.
“If the efficacy rate increases from 50 percent to 51 percent with our technology, that’s underwhelming,” Heaton said. “But if it goes from 50 percent to 90 percent, that would certainly get vaccine companies’ interest.”
Flu infections are most common from late fall to early spring in North Carolina, with peak activity usually occurring in January or February. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends yearly vaccination against the flu for everyone 6 months and older.
“Flu can be a serious illness,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore. “We strongly encourage people to protect themselves by getting a flu shot this season if they haven’t already.”
Flu shots are available at hospitals, pharmacies, private medical offices, some federally qualified health care centers and local health departments. The Flu Vaccine Finder can help people find flu clinics near them.
Joe Johnson: 919-419-6678, @JEJ_HSNews