YOUR NEIGHBOR the next cubicle over coughs loudly, then you overhear him complaining about a fever — and you wonder if you might be the next victim. You quickly type “preventing the flu” into Google, and your query becomes one more indication to the search engine’s mavens that this year’s influenza season is bad. In conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Google’s Flu Trends tracks influenza activity in real time by monitoring how often people search for flu-related terms. It wouldn’t surprise anyone who has tried to sign in at a packed emergency room or who is trying to obtain scarce vaccine that Google reckons that flu activity in the United States is “intense.”
But the country has been — and should continue — preparing for worse.
CDC data out Friday show that the flu struck early this season, shooting up in December when it usually peaks in January or February, and it struck hard. Doctor visits for influenza-like illness, a primary measure of infection, are classified as high for half the country. The last time flu activity was this severe so early was during the particularly deadly 2003-04 season. Add an influenza cliff, too, to the possible drags on the economy; normal flu seasons cost the country more than $10 billion. This year, more Americans cashing in sick days might push that toll up.
The Post’s Lena H. Sun reported Thursday that Americans are scrambling to find late-season flu shots, hopping from drugstore to drugstore in search of antigen-laden elixir. Manufacturers have been scrounging for spare supplies, but they have already shipped 95 percent of their run for this year, and because of archaic and time-consuming production methods they don’t have time to make more.
Pharmaceutical companies still mass produce flu vaccine in chicken eggs. That generally works fine for standard seasonal flu vaccines, because manufacturers have upward of half a year to produce millions of doses. But egg-based production isn’t great in a pinch, and relying on it could be particularly deadly in the case of a wildfire flu pandemic, which would be far worse than what the country is experiencing now.
Following the 2006-07 bird flu scare and the 2009 swine flu pandemic, experts recommended an overhaul, which the Obama administration has quietly begun. A White House panel found that it took 38 weeks in the swine flu episode to produce enough doses for half the country. Shaving just a few weeks off that would have saved more than 2,000 lives. Using animal cells — such as those in dog kidneys — to produce flu vaccine is one technique that might make that difference. Another approach, known as recombinant-based vaccine production, could save yet more time. Last summer the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it is investing $400 million in four facilities with the goal of building sufficient capacity to manufacture pandemic flu vaccine for a quarter of the country in four months, using both of those techniques. A new, cell-based, seasonal vaccine from Novartis has also just been approved.
Making the country more resilient to biological threats should continue to be a national priority. And in the meantime, you would be forgiven for obsessively refreshing Google Flu Trends.