07/17/2017 09:18 EDT | Updated 07/17/2017 09:53 EDT

We Are One Step Closer To Preventing The Next Pandemic

In the case of the flu, we have a weapon in place to help us fight off another H1N1pdm pandemic.

James Gathany/CDC/Handout via REUTERS
A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) scientist measures the amount of H7N9 avian flu virus which was grown and harvested in an unnamed CDC laboratory in 2013.

In 2009, the world was thrown into turmoil. The reason was not an environmental, geopolitical, or economic crisis. Instead, the cause was a microscopic entity known to most as "swine flu."

The virus – officially known as H1N1pdm – first appeared in Mexico but soon spread across the globe with an unnerving speed. Within months, the World Health Organization was forced to announce a pandemic. Although public health officials had known a pandemic was coming, the outcome revealed we simply were not prepared to deal with the virus nor could we stop it in its tracks.

The lessons learned from the pandemic were many ranging from health systems reform to better communication in the public realm. One of the most important was the need to find routes for prevention. There needed to be a means to sound an early warning signal and spark a worldwide effort to protect the population.

This may sound like an impossible task and in the case of many infectious diseases, it is. However, in the case of the flu, we have a weapon in place to help us fight off another H1N1pdm pandemic. It's vaccination.

Today, every influenza vaccine contains a piece of this particular virus so people are protected against infection. While this measure has helped to keep H1N1pdm at bay, other influenza viruses with the potential to start a pandemic continue to circulate the globe.

Back in 1998, the world first learned of H5N1, also known as avian flu. It killed several people in Hong Kong and continues to take lives in a handful of countries. It quickly became the source of the next pandemic.

Thankfully, that prediction has not come to fruition. To date, the virus has led to just under 500 deaths. For the most part, the potential for a pandemic, while real in nature, appears to be low. Still, research into a vaccine continues and today, several candidates are working their way through clinical trials.

But H5N1 isn't the only problem. Several other types of this virus have shown some progress towards pandemic potential. The most troublesome appears to be one known as H7N9. It first appeared in 2013 in six Chinese individuals. Four of them died. The public health community was stunned at this high case fatality rate. Although the number of patients was low, most officials agreed there was a need to take this virus seriously.

Over the years, this decision became justified as the case numbers of H7N9 infected individuals sped past those of H5N1. To date, there have been 1,580 cases and 609 deaths over four years. Making this situation worse is the continued spread of the virus in birds. Based on the latest surveillance reports, the virus can now be found in several countries in Asia.

This information may not be entirely troublesome for most Canadians. After all, the affected countries are half a world away. Yet, back in 2015, the virus did appear in in British Columbia after two people caught the virus in China and brought it home. They survived and little was said afterwards but the moment did reveal that Canada can be affected quickly.

As a result of the threat of H7N9, public health officials suggested in 2013 the focus on vaccine development needed to shift to this particular viral strain. The potential for a pandemic was significantly greater than H5N1 based on the case numbers and deaths. It was time to make the shift.

Unfortunately, that meant researchers needed to start from scratch. None of the current vaccines would work meaning an entirely new shot was needed. That meant more time would be required to catch up with the virus.

Now, some four years later, we may have the first steps towards that H7N9 vaccine. In the last month, groups of researchers from Korea and Russia have developed vaccine candidates with the capability of protecting animals. A third group from America has shown their version of the vaccine also appears to develop an immune response in humans.

The candidates from each study are different from one other but the results reveal we are well on our way to a successful vaccine. Not to mention, the candidates all can be developed both quickly and in large enough supplies to cover the globe. In light of the rapid need for a rapid response should a crisis arrive, this approach is quite possibly the best moving forward.

In light of these discoveries, we are one step closer to preventing an H7N9 pandemic. However, this does not mean we are safe. This simply puts us in the race against nature. There is little doubt this virus eventually will find a way to spread more effectively. Should we succeed at having the vaccine in time, we won't need to deal with H7N9. Should we fall behind however, we may end up having to deal with another pandemic like H1N1pdm, but with a far costlier toll on life.

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