It’s only afternoon, but virologist Lynn Whitaker is already hard at work five hours without a break, fully masked and wearing gloves, while she runs tests in a lab that, for safety’s sake, Biosecure. and is firmly closed to visitors.
The reason for the caution is that it is doing a fresh analysis of virus samples from the plane that came from China. These, as you might expect, are not samples of the coronavirus, but the nasal swabs of 15 people who have recently become ill with the flu.
The tests this senior research laboratory scientist is running will determine whether it is a familiar virus or – more troubling – a new form capable of causing a pandemic.
No visitors are allowed into the laboratory until the test is complete and the samples are safe back in the storage fridge, as these contain live viruses and can potentially cause infection.
We refer to the ‘flu’, but there are actually three forms of the virus that infect humans – A, B and C, all of which differ in structure. Virologist Dr John McCauley says, ‘A viruses are pandemic flu viruses – they, or parts of them, come from other species, such as birds or pigs.
It all feels a little alarming and even James Bond-esque: As I look out through the glass windows, I feel like I’m on a film set for a pandemic disaster movie. And all this for the simple old flu.
Except that for the scientists based here, at the Worldwide Influenza Center at the Francis Crick Institute in London, it’s all in a day’s work, this deadly serious thing. These tests will help determine what goes into your flu jab.
As this winter’s vaccine rollout is set to be the largest yet – with plans to vaccinate 35 million people compared to 19 million last year – this work is arguably more important than ever.
As Health Secretary Sajid Javid recently warned, ‘getting your flu jab is as important as having your Covid jab’ for those over 50. That’s because those fears we’re going to be vulnerable to a higher number of flu cases – the Covid restrictions meant there were fewer flu infections than last winter, thus ‘low immunity’ in the population at large Is.
In a typical year, around 10,000 die from the flu in the UK, says Professor Andrew Easton, a virologist at the University of Warwick: ‘People who have the flu are then more susceptible to other infections – such as pneumonia – and The number of deaths may increase. too much.’
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We refer to the ‘flu’, but there are actually three forms of the virus that infect humans – A, B and C, all of which differ in structure.
Virologist Dr John McCauley says, ‘A viruses are pandemic flu viruses – they, or parts of them, come from other species, such as birds or pigs.
‘These viruses from animals get into humans, adapt to humans, spread to humans, and then others of another species can reappear, swapping genes and often knocking out previous flu A viruses. can,’ he explains.
‘B viruses are not found in any other animal species. They develop only in humans.’
A virus is responsible for about 75 percent of infections. They are classified according to the subtypes of two proteins found on the surface of viruses: hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N): for example, H1N1 (swine flu) and H5N1 (bird flu).
The main flu vaccines given each year protect against two A strains and two B strains of the flu virus. A spokesperson for AstraZeneca told Good Health that inclusion of more than four strains would result in a less uniform response, meaning the vaccine may protect against one type of flu better than another.
Meanwhile, type C flu viruses are relatively rare and cause only a mild illness, so they are not taken into account when creating a vaccine.
The Francis Crick Institute’s surveillance center plays a key role in determining how effective the vaccine will be.
Founded in the 1950s (in another location in London), it is one of seven worldwide (the others are Atlanta and Memphis in the US, Melbourne in Australia, Beijing in China, Tokyo and Siberia in Japan).
These surveillance centers are constantly analyzing samples sent to them from around the world to monitor the types of flu in circulation, how common viruses are changing – and the emergence of new, more troubling varieties like swine. Keep your eyes open. The flu that surfaced in 2009.
Each year the Francis Crick Institute team is sent 7,000 to 8,000 samples, which are collected using PCR tests performed at some of the 150 affiliated national influenza centers located around the world.
“Which country sends its samples is, in part, historical – we get samples from Europe, West and South Africa, Central Asia and Hong Kong,” says Dr John McCauley, a virologist and director of the Worldwide Influenza Center in London. .
He says there are millions of flu viruses in circulation every year, but as Lynn Whitaker points out: ‘If we see something new emerging from just one country, we don’t worry too much.
However, if you see that a new mutation is everywhere, you worry.’
Based on their analysis, the centers must predict which strains of the flu virus may dominate in the coming months.
Twice a year, 30 representatives from seven global surveillance centers come together to share their information – and ideas – about which types of flu are most likely to pose a threat.
Meetings are held in February to decide what goes into Northern Hemisphere JABS (administered now) and in September to decide what goes in Southern Hemisphere JABS (administered six months later).
This has been done long ago because it takes manufacturers up to six months to make a vaccine, Dr. McCauley says.
These meetings are not formalities: the committee must agree on which flu viruses go into vaccines and disagreements can ensue.
‘You have different views on the recommendations,’ says Dr. McCauley.