What a difference a few months makes.
Last fall, nearly all of the kids at my wife’s school had the flu and the phone in the doctor’s office was ringing off the hook with calls from frantic parents. Everywhere you went, people eyed you suspiciously as they reached for the hand sanitizer.
The country was firmly in the grips of an H1N1 swine flu panic — even without coming close to the projected 90,000 fatalities.
Today, though, it as if it never even happened. The same clinics at which people used to stand all day in line for a dose of vaccine are now practically begging people to come in to get their shots.
In a turn of events, one clinic in New York has even hired a fellow to stand at an intersection and wave a giant sign announcing ”FREE TODAY: H1N1 Flu Shots for All” to dig up some prospects. Last fall, the line at the same clinic was stretched a quarter mile down the street.
The H1N1 Swine Flu Retreats — For Now
Apparently free from the hysteria of the moment, the public has returned to its slumber — leaving roughly 50 million vaccine doses to expire on the shelves.
Out of the 126 million doses shipped since October, only about 75 million vaccines have actually been delivered to patients.
Thankfully, this flu season ended with something of a whimper, claiming ~17,000 American lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In an average year, about 36,000 people die from seasonal flu-related causes, according to the CDC.
Tragic as that sounds, it is victory of sorts. Compare these numbers to the death count 91 years ago, when the Spanish Flu wreaked havoc on the world in 1918. Amazingly, this particularly virulent strain killed some 20-40 million people worldwide before ending in 1920.
Today, numbers like those are simply unfathomable.
But don’t believe for a second that because this calamity happened in the days of black and white, something of that magnitude couldn’t happen today…
"A Super Nightmare for the Whole World"
In fact, flu researcher Yi Guan would argue this case — and he should know.
After earning a Ph.D. in swine flu under renowned flu expert Robert Webster of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Yi has seen virulent influenzas close up. After all, it was Yi and his team that helped stop the SARS outbreak in China dead in its tracks in 2003.
During an interview last May, Yi recounted an eye-opening story of his own to Science Insider about the dangers these viruses may one day present.
From the Q&A
Science Insider: Is it surprising how quickly H1N1 adapted?
Yi Guan: All viruses, after interspecies transmission, will evolve fast. But why this H1N1 could become successful at efficient human-to-human transmission is still unknown. We have a knowledge gap about how influenza A viruses build up their pandemicity in humans. As swine H1N1 has being circulating in pigs since 1918, it has accumulated [many] differences from human H1N1 virus. So, for human beings, it looks like a novel subtype, as most human individuals lack immunity to this swine-like H1N1. This is one of the most important conditions for pandemic emergence. Whether the novel virus will develop into a more virulent strain-just like the Spanish flu did in the fall of 1918 to kill more people-we still don’t have any idea.
SI: It depends on further mutations?
YG: It depends on mutations and whether the virus further reassorts with other viruses-like H5N1. That could be a super nightmare for the whole world.
SI: If the nightmare comes true?
YG: If that happens, I will retire immediately and lock myself in the P3 lab. H5N1 kills half the people it infects.* Even if you inject yourself with a vaccine, it may be too late. Maybe in just a couple hours it takes your life.
Now in case you didn’t take the time to read what he said there, I’ll paraphrase it for you:
One of the most knowledgeable flu researchers in the world is prepared to run for his life if a mutated version of the H5N1 virus shows up.
That leaves the rest of us possibly teetering on the brink of a potential calamity, since The World Health Organization says it’s too early to confirm that the current H1N1 pandemic has peaked or won’t mutate — despite panic subsiding.
Because the larger truth here is that we’ve placed our fate in the hands of an 80-year-old method of vaccine production that may never be able to meet the demands of the worldwide market.
Which is exactly what happened last fall: By the time the vaccines arrived in the clinics, this year’s virus had already spread like wildfire — especially among children.
I know this because all three of my kids caught it in the blink of eye, as did all of their little friends.
That’s why developing a universal flu vaccine to protect people against all flu strains is the "holy grail" of flu researchers. They work by targeting the elements of the virus that do not change from season to season. In short, it is the elusive new paradigm.
If successful, these DNA-based vaccines would represent a disruptive technology that would allow governments to build long-term stockpiles against the threat of flu pandemics — like H5N1 swine flu — vastly limiting the threat those dangers may eventually pose.
Until they arrive though, I suppose we would be wise to count our blessings and hope that we can beat the clock on this one.
After all, figuring out how to dispose of a glut of vaccines beats the daylights out of the alternative.
The next time we may not be so "lucky." As we’ve been witness to, a lot can change in just a few months.
Your bargain-hunting analyst,
Steve Christ, Investment Director
The Wealth Advisory
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