One reason I'll keep using masks in public
June 3, 2021 7:26 AM   Subscribe

With Covid suppression measures like mask wearing, school closures, and travel restrictions driving flu transmission rates to historically low levels around the world, it appears that one of the H3N2 clades may have disappeared — gone extinct. The same phenomenon may also have occurred with one of the two lineages of influenza B viruses, known as B/Yamagata.
Fingers crossed: our countermeasures against Covid may have helped make the flu more manageable.
posted by MartinWisse (43 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
The thing is, mRNA make multivalent vaccines for the flu almost trivial. You can throw in the mRNA for as many hemagglutinins, neuraminidase, nucleoprotein, and ion channels as necessary.

Expect a truly universal flu vaccine within the decade.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 8:02 AM on June 3 [54 favorites]


mRNA vaccines are also very promising for treating Multiple Sclerosis and Malaria.

For some perspective, malaria kills about 400,000 people per year and more than 7 million people since 2000.
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:11 AM on June 3 [27 favorites]


Once the flu is extinct, Cold and Flu Tablets (mixtures of paracetamol/acetaminophen, decongestant, pseudoephedrine and such that treat symptoms) will be renamed to Cold and Rona Tablets.
posted by acb at 8:11 AM on June 3 [6 favorites]


Once the flu is extinct

It will never go extinct. There are too many zoonotic reservoirs for it to hang out in.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 8:16 AM on June 3 [13 favorites]


Great post. I plan on continuing to wear a mask during cold and flu season. As I've remarked to more than one person, I haven't been sick in a over a year (except before covid lockdown when I actually got covid).
posted by bluesky43 at 8:27 AM on June 3 [12 favorites]


Cold and Flu Tablets ... will be renamed to Cold and Rona Tablets.
I wonder if anyone will try to pitch a supposedly ancient monastic herbal recipe specifically intended for COVID-19?
posted by pulposus at 8:29 AM on June 3 [6 favorites]


It sounds like we need a global isolation /mask month every decade or so.
posted by romanb at 8:34 AM on June 3 [7 favorites]


Technology will finally allow humans to simulate hibernating for the winter.
posted by acb at 8:43 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


Technology will finally allow humans to simulate hibernating for the winter.

Didn't Dashboard Confessional write a song about that?
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 9:07 AM on June 3


It will never go extinct. There are too many zoonotic reservoirs for it to hang out in.

So, I have good news and bad news about animal reservoir species...
posted by The Tensor at 9:09 AM on June 3 [31 favorites]


One countermeasure not to be overlooked: culture. It's distinctly uncool in a new way to gather while exhibiting a respiratory infection (at least in my little bubble -- does this hold for the anti-mask crowd, I wonder?)
posted by grokus at 9:13 AM on June 3 [5 favorites]


It's distinctly uncool in a new way to gather while exhibiting a respiratory infection (at least in my little bubble

Someone in my theater last week thought it would be a good idea to go to the movies while having a bad enough cold that they coughed loudly through the whole thing.
posted by praemunire at 9:31 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


Many of the control measures we've implemented for Covid could also be used to combat flu outbreaks. In fact many of these tools might be more effective against flu than coronavirus because flu is less infectious. We should continue temperature screening a places like movie theaters, schools and office buildings. We should repurpose testing machines to also test for flu and other common contagious illnesses and give incentives to companies that have lots of public contact (restaurants, transportation, grocery stores, etc) to use these machines and pay their workers to stay home when sick. When local outbreaks are detected we should empower and require local public health officials to re-establish mask mandates and take other reasonable measures.

Unfortunately the political will probably doesn't exist to do these things in enough places to matter, but I can dream.
posted by interogative mood at 9:41 AM on June 3 [8 favorites]


It sounds like we need a global isolation /mask month every decade or so.

My god. Like a sabbatical for introverts. Yes please.
posted by trig at 9:42 AM on June 3 [34 favorites]


So, I have good news and bad news about animal reservoir species...

Oof.
posted by gauche at 9:44 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


So, I have good news and bad news about animal reservoir species...

Yup, that just took me on the good ol' laugh to cry rollercoaster.
posted by Zargon X at 10:08 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


If the annual flu shot is changed to an mRNA vaccine, my mom, who had GBS five years ago, can get flu shots again!!

(She got GBS a month before Trump was elected. She still hasn't regained all of her mobility.)
posted by Tailkinker to-Ennien at 10:10 AM on June 3 [4 favorites]


Someone in my theater last week thought it would be a good idea to go to the movies while having a bad enough cold that they coughed loudly through the whole thing.

This is stressful for sure. Also want to point out, though, that some people have chronic lung disease and are just now able to be vaccinated (or have lung damage specifically from COVID). Now they've gone from being terrified of going anywhere or doing anything to being treated with a lot of social hostility right when they're able to finally try to rejoin society. So while I completely COMPLETELY understand the discomfort people have with people coughing, I would also suggest that when you encounter it, you try to be kind.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:12 AM on June 3 [14 favorites]


This is truly mind blowing. It is hard to overstate the effect of even the US semi effective covid measures had on flu. Last season reported flu deaths in the US were around 600. That's down from 26,000 and 34,000 the previous two years. IE 98% decline over the higher figure. The chart at the top of the linked article really illustrates this.

When local outbreaks are detected we should empower and require local public health officials to re-establish mask mandates and take other reasonable measures.

Despite all the criming and corrupting The Cheetos got up to it's likely his biggest malicious act will have been making public mask wearing a partisan virtue signaling issue.
posted by Mitheral at 10:16 AM on June 3 [21 favorites]


So, I have good news and bad news about animal reservoir species...

Sadly even destroying the ecosphere won't help - the reserve species are farmed meat animals, pigs and birds. And wild ducks are unlikely to go extinct.
posted by GuyZero at 10:24 AM on June 3 [8 favorites]



The thing is, mRNA make multivalent vaccines for the flu almost trivial. You can throw in the mRNA for as many hemagglutinins, neuraminidase, nucleoprotein, and ion channels as necessary.

Expect a truly universal flu vaccine within the decade.


lot of work being done by the word "almost". mRNA is amazing tech, and allows us to get our cells to make proteins that are immunogenic and quickly change the type of proteins we make...... but there are specific kinds of proteins made displayed by flu (unlike covid) that aren't amenable to the version of mRNA tech we use now.

most proteins are post-translationally modified. the proteins surface is decorated with other molecules for a whole variety of reasons (why? do a biochem degree!) - and this decoration is done by cell's machinery. this means that vaccines made by mRNA if they don't co-opt the same ptm machinery don't make identical proteins that viruses do......

we got v.lucky that the protein that the mRNA covid vaccine uses and specifically, the part of it that is its epitope, doesn't need post-translational modification to elicit a good immune response.

in addition, because most of the flu surface proteins are hypervariable we don't KNOW all of the flu proteins in circulation, or their ptm, and the differ enough (unlike covid) that we have to be on the lookout for these.

so, mRNA good, but not there yet as "universal vaccine generator" by a long shot.
posted by lalochezia at 10:28 AM on June 3 [32 favorites]


I haven't been sick in a over a year

Agreed! Plus, I get to mess with AI/facial recognition programs especially now that wearing a mask in public in Canada won't be as socially frowned-up as it was previously... (Well... depends on the sanity of your local population... and the numbers of "anti-maskers").

But - wearing masks during cold/flu season has been the norm for decades in other parts of the world - why is it anathema here? Maybe not any longer.
posted by rozcakj at 11:06 AM on June 3 [5 favorites]


This is promising. I'm usually ill several weeks during each flu season, and this year I only had one week. Ironically after a visit to the doctor for a completely different problem. I had decided to get all the vaccines for the winter of 20/21 because I was so handicapped by respiratory diseases, and then stuff happened, so I'm definitely going to be careful in years ahead.

One thing I wonder about: my grandson who is two has not been nearly as exposed to the regular viruses as he would have been in the before times. Does that make him more vulnerable? It has certainly made life easier for his parents than they even know.
posted by mumimor at 11:25 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


It's great to read the article. For months, some medical expert friends of mine have been wondering whether this would be the case, or if instead most of us would have had a year of not being exposed to flu viruses as they mutated, and thus become even more susceptible. Glad to hear things seem to be headed in the positive direction.
posted by PhineasGage at 11:26 AM on June 3


This is truly mind blowing. It is hard to overstate the effect of even the US semi effective covid measures had on flu. Last season reported flu deaths in the US were around 600. That's down from 26,000 and 34,000 the previous two years. IE 98% decline over the higher figure. The chart at the top of the linked article really illustrates this.

Note the corollary: Covid is so frigging infectious that, even though we were doing enough to stop 99% of the flu cases, it still spread like wildfire and killed a half-million people. It's just mind boggling.
posted by mark k at 12:24 PM on June 3 [62 favorites]


I thought the apparent paradox is that since the flu is more manageable than COVID-19, there is just less incentive for people overall to use masks for the flu, so the flu viruses end up recirculating, etc.
posted by polymodus at 12:48 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]


I was in an airport last week getting some food between flights. A guy game up to the bar and sat down and was coughing. “don’t worry it isn’t covid, just an upper respiratory illness,” they said. As if we wouldn’t mind being exposed to their illness since it wasn’t covid. As I thought this in my head some other traveler said it out loud and the guy decided to go elsewhere.
posted by interogative mood at 2:18 PM on June 3 [20 favorites]


rozcakj - Just wanted to point out that masks don't thwart facial recognition technology. You can still be identified via the area around your nasal bridge.
posted by aquamvidam at 2:58 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Once the flu is extinct

It will never go extinct. There are too many zoonotic reservoirs for it to hang out in.


Hey now, they prefer to be called Republicans.


Also want to point out, though, that some people have chronic lung disease and are just now able to be vaccinated (or have lung damage specifically from COVID). Now they've gone from being terrified of going anywhere or doing anything to being treated with a lot of social hostility right when they're able to finally try to rejoin society. So while I completely COMPLETELY understand the discomfort people have with people coughing, I would also suggest that when you encounter it, you try to be kind.


Thank you for that. I have COPD due to an industrial accident decades ago in which a chemical vapor scarred my lungs, with a chronic cough as a result. I recall in the early stages of COVID when I was wearing a mask and went to the grocery store. I coughed behind my mask and a lady gathered up her young daughter and said in a stage whisper "Oh he's coughing, let's go honey" and skedaddled out of the baked goods aisle looking scandalized.

Which, okay, I wasn't wearing a t-shirt saying "CHRONIC COUGH -- NOT ACTUALLY INFECTIOUS", so I'm not sure I can blame her. But still.
posted by darkstar at 4:32 PM on June 3 [8 favorites]


I recall in the early stages of COVID when I was wearing a mask and went to the grocery store.

Er...when we were in the early stages of the COVID pandemic, that is.

Not when I personally was in the early stages of COVID. (Thankfully I've so far dodged that bullet.)
posted by darkstar at 5:52 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Australia had a pretty bad 2019 flu season. 300,000 cases and 705 deaths. 2020: 21,215 cases, no deaths. https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/coronacast/the-one-silver-lining-of-coronavirus/13337914

Flu is the hang over from the last global pandemic, am I right about that?
posted by freethefeet at 5:57 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]


Which makes sense because Australia didn't have the major, long term restrictions that the US had.
posted by Mitheral at 6:20 PM on June 3


Which makes sense because Australia didn't have the major, long term restrictions that the US had.

Can't tell if you're joking.
posted by pompomtom at 6:34 PM on June 3 [6 favorites]


On the subject of flu death rates... interestingly while the US death rate in 2020 spiked 15% above normal - the highest in history, even higher than the 1918 Spanish Flu.... in Australia, the mortality rate during the Covid crisis was below the past 5 year average - even in absolute terms, it was lower, not accounting for the population growth between 2015 and 2020. Mainly due to flu deaths prevention - but as noted in the provisional 2020 report the distribution of deaths is markedly different - less than average deaths in winter, and more than average in summer, even though the total broadly tracked toward being slightly lower than average per capita. (My own conclusion) suggests that lowering the deaths due to flu in winter, causes a "catch up" in mortality later in the summer months: preventing a flu death in the frailest demographic inevitably means they eventually pass away later anyway. The inverse of this can be seen in summer heat stress mortality in Europe, where if they get a bad heat wave there will be a spike of deaths, and then after that deaths will be below normal for the following months.
posted by xdvesper at 12:18 AM on June 4


Can't tell if you're joking.

I thought Australia had some lock downs and travel restrictions (and of course an on going international travel restriction) but nothing like the US. And number of cases was very low.
posted by Mitheral at 7:02 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


while the US death rate in 2020 spiked 15% above normal - the highest in history, even higher than the 1918 Spanish Flu...

While that statistic is technically correct, it is misleading. Per 100,000 people, the 1918 flu was about 3 times as deadly as COVID-19. That the U.S. COVID-19 pandemic was 15% above "normal" in 2020 is mostly a testament to how much lower "normal" was in 2019 vs 1917, not how deadly COVID-19 was.

(Not to totally downplay COVID-19. Adjusted for duration and population, COVID-19 was deadlier to Americans than both World Wars, Polio, Measles, and a host of other pandemics. Among wars and pandemics, only the American Civil War, smallpox, and the 1918 flu were deadlier to Americans, and obviously we don't know how those pandemics would have played out with modern medical care.)
posted by reventlov at 1:32 PM on June 4 [3 favorites]


RE flu deaths reported in late 2019 and early 2020, my understanding is that it's likely many of them were likely due to misdiagnosed Covid-19. So I keep telling myself that whatever numbers we have for flu -- prior to Covid-19 being aggressively tracked and tested -- are probably inflated.
posted by darkstar at 1:43 PM on June 4


I thought Australia had some lock downs and travel restrictions but nothing like the US. And number of cases was very low.
Mitheral


I think that article has a bit of a spin to it. Yes, the facts are all there, but honestly the restrictions they describe were possibly the most restrictive in the entire world, rivalling what was implemented in China: police roadblocks were set up and you had to show your drivers license to pass them, and you had to be within 5km of your registered address or face huge penalties. If you were deemed an essential worker your company had to issue you an official permit which would allow you to travel beyond the 5km from home.

International borders have essentially remained closed for over a year now: the only incoming passengers allowed are repatriating Australians. Incoming travellers quarantine in isolation under guard: 2 weeks in a hotel room, not allowed to step outside the room, not even open the window: even prisoners in solitary isolation are largely allowed access to outdoors exercise.

A cradle to grave welfare system that essentially paid everyone's wages for the duration of the pandemic if their job was impacted by restrictions played a big part in keeping the population compliant with the rules.
posted by xdvesper at 2:23 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


The main reason Australia beat Covid is geography - or more specifically, the fact that being an isolated nation allowed us to immediately shut borders and stamp out the infection as needed, because our economy hadn't grown over decades to be so intertwined with our neighbours the way France or Canada did.

Canada is socioeconomically Australia's twin in many regards so you might expect our handling of Covid to be similar - but they were doomed to failure due to their tight integration with the US: they couldn't shut their borders early on (many workers live and work on different sides of the border, many supply chains pas through the border too). Enacting tight restrictions in Canada or France to stamp out their local infections were doomed to failure, as more cases would simply pour across the border. It's a tragedy of the commons writ large: if your neighbour doesn't control their Covid infection, then you may as well not try either. As a result, no one tries seriously: they do "just enough" to reduce infections, or to satisfy populist demands, but few countries have been able to shoot for an elimination strategy with draconian restrictions like Australia or New Zealand.

Comparing Australia to the US may not even be the best comparison, the US response was exceedingly poor and even endangered Australia. Australia blocked travel from both the US and China at the same threshold (14,000 cases for China, 17,000 cases for the US) yet by April, a full 15% of our total Covid cases originated from the US, compared to a mere 0.35% originating from China - despite us receiving twice as many incoming passengers from China as from the US. This suggests the US was undercounting cases by a factor of 10 or more back in March relative to China. This was also aided by China voluntarily blocking movement out of Wuhan (the epicentre at the time) containing the infection within their borders and largely preventing it from spreading to other countries.

Anyway: various countries have had more or less effective responses to the Covid crisis but I don't think Australia should be too proud over what has been mostly luck. The right wing Federal Government tried to force schools to stay open, threatening to cut funding to schools that closed: the left wing Opposition controlled state government forced schools to close and declared a State of Emergency, eventually forcing the federal government to come on board with those restrictions.
posted by xdvesper at 2:54 AM on June 5 [4 favorites]


Canada is socioeconomically Australia's twin in many regards so you might expect our handling of Covid to be similar - but they were doomed to failure due to their tight integration with the US

Side note: This is an inaccurately blanket statement that doesn't apply to all Canadian provinces.
posted by eviemath at 7:03 AM on June 5 [4 favorites]


I thought Australia had some lock downs and travel restrictions but nothing like the US. And number of cases was very low.

Presently, (in what we're calling "Lockdown v4") I am not allowed to travel more than 10km from my house. There are five reasons I am allowed to leave my house (to shop for essentials, for authorised work or permitted education (doesn't apply to me), for medical and compassionate reasons, to get vaccinated, or to exercise for a maximum of two hours). I cannot have visitors. I must wear a mask if outside my house. Pubs and restaurants are closed or takeaway only.

Lockdown v2 was for 120 days in a row last year (though then it was a 5km limit), while watching Americans with far worse covid case numbers have massive rallies and beach parties etc.

Absolutely we have better covid numbers, but restrictions are definitely a thing.
posted by pompomtom at 9:42 PM on June 5 [5 favorites]


Incoming travellers quarantine in isolation under guard: 2 weeks in a hotel room, not allowed to step outside the room, not even open the window: even prisoners in solitary isolation are largely allowed access to outdoors exercise.

I have a friend that literally just made it back and is finishing her quarantine today. At least where she is, they do get to go outside. They are in those temporary building you see a contruction sites, all with a porch. She is not allowed to leave that porch, but she does get to go outside.

With regard to who's restrictions were worse, well that depends. Australia went hard, but they also get to go to bars and clubs and all that stuff now, depending on where you are. I've lived in Europe for the whole thing, and while no its not really possible to lock down like Australia can as an island, this half lockdown for extended periods of time feels worse. I only just was able to go to a non-essential store for the first time since December. I think I would prefer a hard shorter lockdown than an extended half-lockdown like we've had.

Of course, maybe the grass is always greener on the other side. And different options were not available everywhere.
posted by LizBoBiz at 4:58 AM on June 7


depending on where you are

Cheers for the erasure mate.
posted by pompomtom at 7:02 AM on June 7


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