Catching the flu on purpose, for science

ABC News – A leading researcher at the National Institutes of Health is declaring this year’s severe flu season a “wake-up call” for the medical community.

The flu is widespread in 48 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and has sent 19,398 people to the hospital. At least 84 children have died since October 1.

“We need to do better,” said. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.


Take, for example, Dr. Matt Memoli’s team of researchers at NIH who are infecting healthy humans with the flu and quarantining them for days at a time.

The goal: a vaccine that lasts many years and covers an umbrella of viruses, scrapping the need for yearly injections that may miss the virus that is circulating most that season.

NIH is paying 94 people $3,500 each to infect them with the flu virus and then test the effectiveness of antibodies. Every year, the virus changes a bit, but some parts stay the same. The researchers want to find what is consistent year to year, aiming for that universal vaccine.

“What we have to do is target this idea of a universal vaccine,” said Memoli. “Every step that we make forward in the vaccine is one step closer to that goal.”

Doctors believe they are still many years away from that goal, but it’s research like this that inches them closer to a breakthrough.

But why would a regular person raise her hand to get sick with the flu and spend more than a week in a room by themselves?

“For myself, and then for young children as well because those are the ones who get severely affected by it,” said 24-year-old Emily Laltoo, a recent college graduate participating in the study while job searching.

“There’s no reason, in 2018, that people should be dying from the flu. That just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Marcus Williams, a 42-year-old who runs a non-profit and is participating in the study with Emily at the NIH Clinical Center, where previous patients have been treated for diseases such as Ebola.

So what do they do while separated from other people and likely quite sick?

“I’ve brought my laptop and I plan on watching some Netflix and movies on there. And I brought a book,” said Laltoo.

“I’m also going to work on my resume and cover letter,” she added with a laugh.

These two patients will spend at least 10 days in quarantine after receiving the H1N1 via a nasal spray, the same strain of the flu that caused a 2009 pandemic. Around this clinic, the vials of the virus are carried through the hallways on ice, hand-delivered to patients.

Some will get a drug containing an antibody and doctors will observe them to see if their condition improves; piecing together the puzzle of a vaccine that will cover a multitude of flu types.

Researchers say they are making progress. New vaccines designed to attack four or five different types of flu could be just five years away. The universal vaccine, the holy grail for the medical community, is likely at least a decade away.

But when that day comes, Williams says he will be watching.

“The doctors and nurses of course get the most credit,” said the Charlottesville native. “Scientists obviously get a lot more credit, but at least I can say I had something to do with it.”

ABC News’ Nathan A. Luna, Daniel Steinberger and Erin Dooley contributed to this report.

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