Did the pandemic drive some strains of the flu extinct?

Did the pandemic drive some strains of the flu extinct?
(AP Photo/Sang Tan)

When was the last time you heard someone say, ‘good job, novel coronavirus. Well done!’ Well, that may not be exactly accurate, but a recent report from the medical community suggests that some strains of influenza typically found in the United States may be “extinct” at this point. With essentially no cases detected for more than a year, it’s possible that the Yamagata lineage influenza B virus and influenza A H3N2 strain may simply be gone. Before we begin popping the champagne corks, that doesn’t mean that the flu has been wiped out entirely. There are several other prevalent strains. But it might make the development and deployment of next season’s flu vaccines a bit more simple, which would be good news. But what’s the reason for the vanishing act? Doctors believe it could have happened because of all of the hand-washing and social distancing that’s been going on since the pandemic hit. (Gizmodo)

Scientists say that two common strains of the seasonal flu have seemingly vanished from circulation, likely due to public health measures like mask-wearing meant to slow the covid-19 pandemic. Though it will take time to confirm the disappearing act, the unexpected good news could make developing next season’s flu shot all the easier.

Every year, various types of the flu spread across the world, usually following a seasonal pattern of colder and/or drier weather. These flus are divided into two broad categories, A and B viruses, which are further divided into different groups. Both can mutate relatively quickly in a short amount of time, but influenza A viruses are the more dangerous variety, since they originally crossed over from animals like birds and can mutate enough to become the next source of a pandemic.

Scientists globally monitor the evolution of flu viruses by testing samples of confirmed flu cases from people who visit hospitals and doctors’ offices (the flu is always around, but it usually doesn’t cause major outbreaks until the typical season). This allows them to predict the likely batch of common strains that will circulate in the coming year and to then produce vaccines geared to provide immunity to those strains.

We’re being urged not to get too far ahead of ourselves on this. Just because they haven’t found any cases of these two strains in over a year, not everyone who comes down with the flu is tested, particularly if they have mild symptoms and potentially don’t even bother going to the doctor. (I’ve been guilty of that.) It’s possible that both strains are out there incubating someplace. And if so, it only takes a couple of individuals to sneeze on a bus once the weather starts turning cooler again in the autumn and either or both of them could be off to the races again.

Of course, we could say the same thing about the novel coronavirus, right? The pandemic may be receding and the number of new cases is dropping across the country, but the virus is still out there. It’s always going to be out there. And it has proven repeatedly that it’s very good at mutating to ensure its own survival, just like the flu. It seems as if a week doesn’t go by without doctors reporting a new variant showing up somewhere in the world.

The good news is that we seem to be getting better at developing vaccines and tracking the mutations. As the linked article points out, during an average season we lose anywhere from two to three hundred children to the flu. Over this past winter, we lost one. But when the next serious outbreak of the flu comes charging back as it always does, we’ll hopefully have a sturdy enough vaccine to keep the situation manageable. We’ve been doing that balancing act for a long time now and we should be able to do the same thing with COVID.

My one concern at the moment is that some group of panic-mongers is going to point to this news and say that it provides proof that everyone should keep wearing masks forever, or at least during the winter months. (Fauci already tried suggesting that once.) No thank you. We’ve managed the flu just like we’ve managed everything else that mother nature has thrown at us thus far. We’ll handle this too. It’s time to get back to normal.

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