(NEW YORK POST) – Doctors fear another super-flu outbreak like the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed so many people, there were more bodies than coffins.
A century after one of history’s most catastrophic disease outbreaks — which killed tens of millions as it swept the globe — scientists are fighting to guard against a deadly new pandemic.
There’s no way to predict what strain of the shape-shifting flu virus could spread across the planet or, given modern medical tools, how bad it might be.
But researchers hope they’re finally closing in on stronger flu jabs, ways to boost much-needed protection against ordinary winter influenza and guard against future pandemics at the same time.
Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said: “We have to do better and by better, we mean a universal flu vaccine.
“A vaccine that is going to protect you against essentially all, or most, strains of flu.”
Labs around the country are hunting for a super-shot that could eliminate the annual autumn vaccination in favor of one every five years or 10 years, or maybe, eventually, a childhood immunization that could last for life.
Fauci is designating a universal flu vaccine a top priority for NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Last summer, he brought together more than 150 leading researchers to map a path. A few attempts are entering first-stage human safety testing.
But, despite 100 years of science, the flu virus too often beats humanity’s best defenses because it constantly mutates.
Researchers are dissecting the cloak that disguises influenza as it sneaks past the immune system, and finding some rare targets that stay the same from strain to strain, year to year.
“We’ve made some serious inroads into understanding how we can better protect ourselves. Now we have to put that into fruition,” said well-known flu biologist Ian Wilson of The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.
Back in 1918 there was no flu vaccine and it wouldn’t arrive for decades.
Today vaccination is the best protection but at best, the seasonal vaccine is 60% effective.
Protection dropped to 19% a few years ago when the vaccine didn’t match an evolving virus.
If a never-before-seen flu strain erupts, it takes months to brew a new vaccine.
Doses arrived too late for the last, fortunately mild, pandemic in 2009.
Lacking a better option, Fauci said the nation is “chasing” animal flu strains that might become the next human threat.
Today’s top concern is a lethal bird flu that jumped from poultry to more than 1,500 people in China since 2013.
Last year it mutated, meaning millions of just-in-case vaccine doses in a US stockpile no longer match.
While scientists hunt for answers, “it’s folly to predict” what a next pandemic might bring, Fauci said.
Chinese H7N9 bird flu “worries me a lot,” Dr. Taubenberger said. “For a virus like influenza that is a master at adapting and mutating and evolving to meet new circumstances, it’s crucially important to understand how these processes occur in nature.
“How does an avian virus become adapted to a mammal?”
While scientists hunt those answers, “it’s folly to predict” what a next pandemic might bring, Fauci said. “We just need to be prepared.”