We’ve all had it (or seen someone else have it) and we all hate it: the flu. As miserable as the symptoms can be, the severity of the virus can actually cause hospitalization and even death. Since 2010, the CDC estimates that influenza has been responsible for around 710,000 trips to the hospital and up to 56,000 deaths. It can be shocking to know that something so common, that is advertised every fall and winter, can be so utterly devastating. Luckily, science and technology have come together to produce a few promising ways of managing and, eventually (hopefully), eradicating the virus.
On a fundamental level — literally — researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) have made groundbreaking advances through their understanding of how the virus spreads. By studying virus-like particles (VLPs), which are protein-based structures that mimic viruses and bind to antibodies but are not infectious, they were able to discover specific molecules (called hemagglutinin, or HA, proteins) that both VLPs and the natural influenza virus contain. The quantity and specific location of HA molecules may increase the efficacy of VLP vaccines by influencing the binding of antibodies to live influenza viruses, effectively preventing them from being able to infect other cells. It’s all very technical, but the main goal is to develop vaccines that are more specific and therefore effective against seasonal and universal influenza.
So, the folks over at NIAID have taken care of the preventative aspect, but what about treatment itself? The flu spreads through water droplets that are created when people cough, sneeze, or talk. Surprisingly, people are contagious one day before symptoms appear, and as far as a week after becoming fully sick.
There’s a reason you’re supposed to stay home from work when you’re sick, despite the fact that one out of three people will stubbornly work through their illness and effectively infect a good number of coworkers they come into contact with. As a response to containment, there is currently a revolutionary new idea taking hold in the form of at-home tests and mobile treatment.
The Department of Health and Human Services understands that the main problem with the flu is how easily it spreads. The agency is currently funding two companies to develop the technology ($14 million for Cue Health and $10 million for Diassess, both of which could be bumped up to even higher numbers) to diagnose and treat patients without them ever needing to set their contagious feet outside. Dr. Rick Wright, director of the Health and Human Services Department’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), explained the importance of that aspect.
“Empowering people to answer the basic question, ‘Do I have the flu?’ without leaving home could have a profound effect on controlling and treating influenza, whether it’s seasonal or a wide-spread pandemic. Putting that power in patients’ hands could transform the speed and delivery of care. In a pandemic, that equates to lives saved and stronger national health security.”
By keeping people in their homes, they will significantly reduce the possibility of sick people infecting others on their way to their primary care doctor, or urgent care facility. If this control continues long enough, the virus will have no hosts and will experience the same fate as the smallpox virus — complete annihilation.