Bad news folks: it's officially flu season once again.
In actuality flu season never completely goes away, but it often tends to peak during the winter months. It thus finds its way to the forefront of public consciousness during that time.
The flu is typically a major inconvenience for many of the people it affects, but for an estimated 200,000 Americans annually, the flu is no laughing matter. According to Harvard Medical School, some 200,000 Americans are hospitalized each year because of the flu, and roughly 36,000 of those people will die. The combination of pneumonia and influenza is the eighth-leading cause of death in the United States based on statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, right below diabetes and ahead of nephrotic diseases (i.e. kidney diseases).
Three feverishly bad flu myths
Despite being a prominent and deadly disease, it's also often misunderstood. There are possibly more myths associated with the flu than with any other major disease. Today, we'll take a look at three of the worst offenders among flu myths and hopefully put them to rest. Afterwards, we'll take a closer look at where the flu treatment spectrum really stands right now.
Myth 1: Getting a flu shot will give me the flu.
Perhaps the most long-running flu myth is that getting a flu shot will result in you eventually coming down with a case of the flu. Survey says, "False!"
The vast majority of flu vaccines are administered as an injection. Injectable flu vaccines use inactive strains of the flu virus designed to teach your immune system what to look for, and essentially how to combat a couple of variations of the flu. It's impossible to get the flu virus from an inactive strain of the flu.
The one exception would be AstraZeneca's (NYSE:AZN) FluMist, the intranasal spray for people who are afraid of needles, and the flu treatment most commonly given to persons in the U.S. military. FluMist contains a live attenuated version of the flu, which, in layman's terms, means it's a very much-weakened form of the flu virus. In a worst-case scenario, the person receiving AstraZeneca's FluMist may experience cold-like symptoms, including a possible low-grade fever and muscle aches; but it's impossible to get the flu from today's approved flu vaccines.
Myth 2: Getting the flu shot will make me immune/invincible.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that if they get a flu shot, they'll be completely immune to the flu, or borderline invincible. This is also false.
The truth is that vaccine effectiveness for an influenza vaccine will vary from season to season. The reason? The influenza virus isn't static -- it has multiple subtypes and it's fairly mutable, meaning researchers are merely putting out their best guesses every year as to which subtypes are likely to proliferate. If it's any solace, researchers tend to deliver hits more often than misses, so they must be doing something right.
The other issue here is that it can take a substantial amount of time for pharmaceutical companies to manufacture enough influenza vaccine to meet demand, and for that supply to reach its appropriate destinations. If it's discovered that researchers picked the wrong strains to focus on in a given year, it's sometimes simply too late for pharmaceutical companies to manufacture what could be the most-effective vaccine.
In short, if you get a flu vaccine, you can still get the flu. However, the vaccine is giving you a better chance of not catching the flu, or in reducing the severity of your flu should you catch it.
Myth 3: I'm healthy, so I don't need a flu shot.
The final "big" flu myth is that you shouldn't have to get a flu shot because you feel invincible, or are perfectly healthy. Once again, the magic 8-ball is pointing toward false.
Getting a flu shot serves multiple purposes. First, as advertised, the flu vaccine is designed to protect people with the most-vulnerable immune systems. Those folks include infants and children, as well as seniors aged 65 and up. Getting a flu shot can protect patients with weaker immune systems from developing the flu, but it's more often a tool used to help reduce the severity of the disease.
But the flu vaccine is also designed to treat healthy adults. Healthy adults may not wind up in the hospital often due to the flu, but those hospital beds are best saved for those with weaker immune systems that need them most. Thus, getting a flu shot reduces the chances that a healthy adult needs to go to the hospital.
Combatting the flu: Where we are today
Now that those frivolous myths have been put to rest, we can take a closer look at what the treatment landscape looks like today. The most exciting development over the last two years among the roughly half-dozen vaccine developers has been the expanded use of quadrivalent vaccines. For years, the typical flu vaccine -- known as a trivalent -- targeted three strains: two type A influenza strains, and a type B influenza strain.
Type A is far more common, although the B strains are more typical later in the flu season (i.e., as we enter the spring months). Quadrivalent vaccines target four strains instead of the three that trivalent vaccines are geared toward. They're designed to treat two type A and two type B strains. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't identify quadrivalent vaccines as recommended over trivalent vaccines, drugmakers are quick to advertise the added protection.
Thinking of this from the perspective of an investor, the quadrivalent vaccine is also more expensive, and thus should come with improved margins for drug developers. The big players in quadrivalent's are Sanofi (NASDAQ:SNY), with FluZone and an intradermal vaccine, GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) with FluLaval and Fluarix, and AstraZeneca with FluMist.
FluMist was always expected to be a big player due to its convenience, but its price premium as an alternative to a shot appears to have scared away some prospective customers. GlaxoSmithKline's FluLaval and Fluarix have been more successful than FluMist, generating sales of roughly $300 million through the first nine months of 2015. But the real influenza kingpin is Sanofi.
The reason Sanofi's influenza vaccines tend to be the choice of consumers and physicians -- and why Sanofi's vaccine sales totaled about $800 million in just the third quarter -- is the number of treatment options it can offer. It has an intradermal option for patients afraid of long needles, it has multiple dosing options, and it can treat infants as young as six months. By comparison, GlaxoSmithKline's Fluarix and FluLaval are only approved in children ages three and up. More choice simply means more opportunity for Sanofi to help patients.
Where we're headed next
In addition to quadrivalent and trivalent vaccines, some leading clinical-stage drug developers are working on experimental influenza vaccines.
Inovio Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:INO) is utilizing its SynCon DNA-based platform to develop a universal vaccine that would, in theory, cover the most common seasonal influenza flu subtypes, as well as pandemic potential subtypes, such as H5N1. Because Inovio's platform involves DNA-based vaccines, it should be able to mix and match subtypes with ease on an as-needed basis. Multiple clinical studies are ongoing.
Sarepta Therapeutics (NASDAQ:SRPT) is in the midst of researching AVI-7100 in early-stage trials. AVI-7100 is a vaccine designed to bind to influenza RNA and disrupt the synthesis of M1 and M2 matrix proteins. Without getting into too much detail, these proteins are essential for the replication process. It's possible AVI-7100 may have more uses beyond just influenza, but it would obviously have a huge audience if the product proves successful as a treatment for influenza.
There's a lot of exciting ongoing research into keeping influenza at bay. It doesn't appear that a one-size-fits-all cure is on its way anytime soon, but it also looks as if we're heading in the right direction.