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Why the race to stop the next flu outbreak starts at state fairs and the beach

November 21, 2019


JUDY WOODRUFF: We resume our look now at how
prepared we are for the next influenza pandemic, not the seasonal flu, whose strains emerge
every year and we take a flu shot to prevent. Public health officials are watching bird
and swine populations for the flu we can’t predict, looking for the viruses we have never
seen and have no vaccines against. William Brangham reports for our regular coverage
about the Leading Edge of science, technology and medicine. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At this county fair in Northern
Ohio, young people come to show off and sell the animals they have raised. Dr. Andrew Bowman is here for a much different
reason. He’s looking for the first rumblings of a
potential flu pandemic among these guys. He takes a simple nasal wipe that he will
later test for flu. He and his team will do this thousands of
times at fairs across the country this year. Pigs get the flu, just like people do. They get fevers, they sneeze and cough. And when they’re brought together for fairs
and competitions, that flu can spread. Every year, tens of millions of Americans
come to fairs like this one. And Dr. Bowman says that, every once in a
while, that virus can move from the pigs into humans. DR. ANDREW BOWMAN, Ohio State University: You
know, we think about this certainly occurring in Southeast Asia, other places of the world,
where we have a different animal-human interface, and that we think it doesn’t happen in the
U.S. But if you think about what we do at shows
and fairs, we certainly have animals from multiple places coming together, and we create
that animal-human interface that’s conducive to influenza transmission. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The good news is, this type
of flu usually stops after it makes that interspecies jump, meaning, one of us gets sick, but not
more. It doesn’t spread from person to person. The bad news, given how flu viruses mutate,
that could change any minute. DR. ANDREW BOWMAN: In the worst case, a couple
hundred cases in a given year. It’s quite low, but realize, right, any one
of those could be the one that starts the next pandemic. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Then there’s the viral threat
from the sky. Each spring in Cape May, New Jersey, migratory
birds making their way from South America to the Arctic stop here. These ruddy turnstones and red knots are refueling
for the trip by feasting on the millions of tiny eggs left by these mating horseshoe crabs. And when the birds are here, so are flu researchers,
like Dr. Lisa Kercher. DR. LISA KERCHER, Jude Children’s Research Hospital:
There is no other place that we know of that carries this much influenza in these birds. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s amazing. It just looks like a beautiful beach. DR. LISA KERCHER: Exactly. But there’s a lot more going on here than
just birds on the shore and a nice sunny day. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Collectively, the birds
carry dozens of flu strains in their stomachs. Usually, it never bothers them. And by collecting their fecal samples, these
scientists from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital can track how those strains are evolving. They scour and scoop along the beach. They net other birds, swab them, and then
release them. It’s not because they’re afraid these birds
will pass flu directly to people. That rarely happens. It’s because all flu originates in birds. They’re the natural world’s biggest reservoir
of the virus. With so many species converging and mingling
here, this is a hotbed for viral research. DR. LISA KERCHER: We want to know what they’re
leaving behind. Right? So that’s why we’re out here collecting all
the samples. But what also we’re concerned with is, these
birds and other wild birds that migrate, they often mix with domestic group populations. And when they mix with domestic first, domestic
birds can get very sick from… WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s ducks and chickens
and… DR. LISA KERCHER: Ducks and chickens and things
in your backyard. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Every time a major flu pandemic
has killed lots of humans, it’s followed some version of this pattern, flu moving from wild
birds to domestic animals and then into us. In that process, new strains of virus can
be created. And that’s what everyone is on the lookout
for. Usually, when one of those novel strains makes
the jump into humans, it then hits a dead end. It doesn’t spread further. But if that strain manages to adapt, so it
can then go human to human , watch out. So transmitting on, if I get sick, and seriously
sick, and then I’m able to pass that to other humans, that’s a problem. DR. ANDREW BOWMAN: That’s a pandemic. It would go to an outbreak and then onto a
pandemic. And that’s — that would be the most severe
outcome that we could worry about. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s exactly what happened
back in 2009. The H1N1 virus jumped from pigs to humans
in Mexico and California. And then it quickly spread. Within six weeks, it had spread to multiple
countries. Within months, nearly every nation on Earth
had cases. It was a true pandemic. H1N1 proved incredibly contagious, but luckily
not that deadly. Still, somewhere between 150,000 and 500,000
people died across the world, and more than 12,000 in the U.S. But those were still below the seasonal flu’s
usual toll. Public health officials say the world dodged
a bullet. DR. RICK BRIGHT, Director, Biomedical Advanced
Research and Development Authority: We made a decision to invest heavily in preparing
our nation for pandemic influenza. And that was critical for the government to
work with our industry partners. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A big part of Dr. Rick Bright’s
job is to get the U.S. ready for the next pandemic. He helps oversee vaccine research and development
for the federal government. Vaccines have for years been made using chicken
eggs. They are a superb vehicle for growing virus. Bright says 95 percent of all flu vaccines
globally are made this way. This facility is contracted by the vaccine
makers Sanofi Pasteur to churn out hundreds of thousands of eggs every day if a pandemic
were to break out. But Bright says this process, which can take
six to nine months, is still too long. DR. RICK BRIGHT: Thirty-three million people will
die while we’re waiting for a vaccine… WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thirty-three million? DR. RICK BRIGHT: … in a pandemic scenario. So we have to count every day that passes
from identification of something novel to when we can deliver that vaccine not only
in just days, but also in lives lost. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: To shorten that window,
the government started a partnership with the pharmaceutical company Seqirus to operate
this plant in Holly Springs, North Carolina. Here, they have stockpiled vaccines against
some of the more troubling novel strains that have emerged in the past, just in case they
reemerge. They’re also creating new vaccines using cells
from mammals, instead of eggs. Bright says this could save weeks, maybe months. DR. RICK BRIGHT: These, they can actually haven’t
growing year-round, if they needed the surge very quickly to make more vaccine for a crisis
or expand even more for a pandemic response. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But almost everyone agrees
the shape-shifting nature of the influenza virus means all these efforts are still not
enough. DR. RICK BRIGHT: Everything we think we know about
influenza changes almost every day, because of the way this virus grows, mutates and spreads. We must look to the future, invest in innovation,
reduce those bottlenecks, and make sure everyone has access to a vaccine for pandemic influenza
when and where they need it. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: While that vaccine work
is under way, surveillance teams across the country keep an eye out, watching the virus,
looking for the emergence of the next potential pandemic. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham. JUDY WOODRUFF: And, tomorrow, William concludes
the series by focusing on the hunt for a universal flu vaccine.

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