Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2005 | Features

The Making of a Monster

By Tina Owen

It's like finding out that your mild-mannered neighbor leads a secret life as the BTK killer.

For many Americans, flu is a familiar, and not particularly worrying, disease. Every year, flu season rolls around; and, every year, the virus’s worst consequences are usually reserved for the very old or the very young. Typically, about 36,000 Americans die annually from influenza. Anyone else who catches it endures a few weeks of fever, sore throat, cough, and muscle aches. Until bird flu raised its head in humans, most of us probably didn’t consider influenza a deadly disease. By conservative estimates, though, a bird flu pandemic could kill 12 million people worldwide.

The virus responsible for such mayhem is a Jekyll and Hyde character. It changes and adapts, leaving scientists one step behind as they try to second-guess an invisible enemy. To prepare the annual flu vaccines, experts survey the strains that predominate one year and then try to predict which ones will appear the following flu season. Even if they guess correctly, producing a vaccine—from identifying the strain to manufacturing and distributing supplies—takes about 40 weeks.

With fears of a bird flu pandemic running high this fall, the chances of being able to manufacture enough vaccine specifically for that virus appear to be slim. Although a prototype has been developed, 12 times as much vaccine as usual is required to develop a protective immune response. To complicate matters, vaccines are usually grown in chicken eggs. Since bird flu is lethal to chickens, manufacturers have to use less virulent strains of the vaccine during the manufacturing process. A quicker method of growing vaccines in cell lines rather than eggs is being developed, but in the meantime, experts hope that the regular vaccine will offer some protection against bird flu, should an outbreak occur.

“There’s a sense that we’ve conquered infectious diseases,” says Dr. Pat Winokur, 88R, 91F, a UI associate professor of internal medicine who’s conducting trials on the effectiveness of diluted flu vaccine. “But antibiotics aren’t working as well as they used to against a lot of diseases, and then we get completely new viruses, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that appeared in 2003. Now, we’re watching the natural progression of a new pandemic.”