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A Flu Vaccine That’s Always in Season

In the spring of 2013 a strain of influenza virus that had never infected humans before began to make people in China extremely ill. Although the virus, known as H7N9, had evolved among birds, it had mutated in a way that allowed it to spread to men, women and children. Within several months H7N9 sickened 135 individuals, of whom 44 died, before subsiding with the advance of summer weather.

We got lucky with H7N9. Had it triggered a pandemic—an explosion of infectious disease across a large geographical area—we would have been woefully unprepared, and millions might have died. The trouble is that every new virus requires a new vaccine, and making new vaccines takes time. Even a typical flu season is brimming with slightly mutated versions of familiar viruses. In most cases, manufacturers anticipate these changes and tweak existing formulas so that they will still work against the new strains. When a virus like H7N9 makes a surprise appearance in people, however, manufacturers must scramble to concoct an entirely new vaccine from scratch, which takes too long to prevent a large number of people from becoming sick and dying.

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