Scientists Are Already Preparing for the Next Flu Season

Researchers are monitoring swine influenza viruses as part of ongoing work to prepare for the next potential virulent strain of flu.

With spring in the United States just around the corner, the influenza season is coming to an end. Indeed, seasonal influenza cases are decreasing across the country. But as the health care system breathes a sigh of relief with this change, researchers at Kansas State University have begun preparations for the next potential flu strain to affect Americans.

Thanks to a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Juergen Richt, DVM, PhD, Regents distinguished professor of veterinary medicine and director of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases, and Wenjun Ma, BVSc, MVSc, PhD, assistant professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, are surveying for swine influenza viruses. Their work is part of the Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance and is being conducted in collaboration with Richard Webby, PhD, from the infectious disease department at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, TN.

“Swine influenza viruses infect swine and cause a respiratory disease in pigs, but they sometimes have the ability to transmit from pigs to humans,” Richt said. “We hope that we are early enough in discovering these novel swine influenza viruses so that we can isolate and characterize these viruses and alert the respective authorities to control and eradicate them as soon as possible.”

Complicating the research, and simultaneously marking the importance of this research is that swine influenza are constantly changing, according to Richt. “There's a constant mutational rate, and sometimes they're changing very rapidly using a mechanism called reassortment — gene segments from one influenza virus are mixed with gene segments from a different influenza virus,” he said. “We are very concerned about these genes coming together to create new surface proteins that have not been seen in the human population.”

To conduct their research, Richt and Ma have been collecting samples from disease pig populations recorded by the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory—a full-service animal diagnostic laboratory at Kansas State University’s Manhattan, KS campus that offers various diagnostic tests and services that are important for both domestic and wild animals—and the Abilene Animal Hospital—a mixed animal practice with expertise in swine heart health located in Abilene, KS. Richt and Ma analyze these samples to determine if the swine influenza could pose a danger to humans.

Richt and Ma are no strangers to this research, having worked on the current project for six years. The research team had previously discovered a novel influenza subtype among pigs from Missouri. The finding highlighted the ease with which influenza can transfer between species, as the novel H2N3 virus was created through a re-assortment from a duck influenza virus and an endemic swine influenza virus that could have posed a great danger to human health. Luckily, the researchers were closely monitoring the influenza virus and it died out before having the chance to spread.

“I think it is very important work because influenza is a threat to public health and animal health. We are providing very important information for the industry and for public health,” said Ma.