Using virtual reality, scientists at the National Institute of Health have blown up microscopic flu viruses to 200 million times their actual size. Now that they can take a good look at the agents of our misery, they are closer to finding a way to defeat them.
It’s a monumental task. There are so many viruses that cause flu symptoms that categories exist within categories. Overall, there are three types of flu, conveniently labelled A, B and C, with A being the worst. A is the type of virus that causes epidemics of sniffling, aches and fevers. C is relatively mild and sometimes even symptom-free. But there are hundreds of unique viruses within each of these categories that are evolving, appearing and disappearing every year.
Overall, the flu will strike about 20 percent of the population in an epidemic and each year causes an estimated 200,000 hospitalizations and thousands of deaths — up to 40,000 fatalities in some years. Seniors and small children are more susceptible to flus and complications, along with people whose immune systems are compromised.
Each year authorities take a gamble on which emerging virus will be the most deadly and create a vaccine in the hopes of staving off an epidemic.
The so-called ‘Holy Grail’ of flu prevention is a universal vaccine that would work for all viruses — perhaps even in perpetuity. We may be closer, as the NIH has started the first human trials of a potential universal vaccine and is monitoring its results.
By blowing up imagery of viruses to see them better, they can detect minute particles that are identical across all strains. If they can create a vaccine that targets that particular aspect, then all viruses would be vulnerable to eradication — not just one per season.
Until then, senior citizens and high-risk patients are eligible this year for some extra protection with one new vaccine that is high dose and another separate vaccine that has an agent to make it more powerful. Watch how it could save lives while we wait for the Holy Grail.