The H7N9 strain of the flu virus has been described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “one of the most lethal flu viruses around.” The first human cases of the flu arose in Shandong Province on the eastern coast of China at the end of March. As of May 13, the virus has infected 135 people with a death toll of 35. And researchers are developing a vaccine to fight it. This new vaccine may include genes from multiple strains of the virus and may offer protection from potential mutations.
The challenge with developing a vaccine that covers any strain of bird flu is accounting for future mutations, which can occur quickly and unpredictably. “Avian influenza viruses are moving targets that rapidly evolve and evade vaccines that are specific to a predicted strain,” says Suresh Mittal, professor of Comparative Pathobiology at Purdue University. “We need a vaccine that protects against a spectrum of strains to prepare for a potential pandemic.”
Don’t rush to your doctor’s office or local drugstore for a vaccine just yet! It’s still in development. Neither the WHO or the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have recommended either a formulation of vaccine to develop or a specific strain of virus or viruses it should protect against. The WHO and the CDC announced at least two vaccine candidates, which come from inactive versions of safer viruses that can alert the body’s immune system to a strain’s genetic code. After a strain is chosen, it becomes a “seed strain,” which is used to manufacture vaccines on a large scale.
There are still many unanswered questions about the virus. Experts know that it may spread from chickens to people, but no human-to-human transmission has been found. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “the increase in case counts has fallen off from the month of April,” which may be due to proper “containment measures” taken by the Chinese authorities.
By closing live bird markets, the authorities may have lowered the chance of virus exposure from birds to humans. It’s also possible that there may be a decline in virus infections because of its timing. According to the CDC’s most recent report, bird flu viruses “have a seasonal pattern to them.” They usually decline in the summer months, so it’s also possible that the approach of summer may also be delaying an epidemic.
Currently, this is also no plan to launch an H7N9 vaccine program by the US government. The CDC still has not issued travel restrictions to China. However, as always, it’s always important to frequently wash your hands, avoid contact with animals, and follow food safety practices, which includes washing your fruits and vegetables and properly cooking meat and poultry products, especially eggs.