How COVID-19 Is Informing Influenza Strategies

An expert explains how flu monitoring, sequencing, and preventive strategies may be improved due to the pandemic.

Many would believe that COVID-19 response would be informed by public health experts’ experience with prior outbreaks including influenza, SARS, and other respiratory viruses.

While that is somewhat true, some experts have found COVID-19 to be illuminating for their understanding of decades-old viruses.

In the second segment of an interview with HCPLive, Keipp Talbot, MD, MPH, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University, discussed how the robust global sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 since initial outbreaks has helped potentially fill gaps in flu understand—seeing as the original pandemic for the latter occurred well before sequencing was possible.

“This is a whole new ballgame, and actually, some of us who study flu are really excited about what’s going on with COVID because we may be able to go back and look at flu, study flu this way,” Talbot said.

Talbot also discussed the understanding brought on by last year’s business and public closures in response to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—measures never used to such high degree before in modern public health response.

“We’ve always wondered, if people wore masks, stayed home, washed their hands, could we stop viruses? We saw almost no flu nor RSV when we went into lockdown,” she said. “I’ve been doing flu research for 20 years, and suddenly there was no flu—which is kind of exciting.”

As such, simpler resolutions—improved access to hand sanitizer, reduced work and school attendance in the event of flu-like symptoms, masking in highly-populated areas—may become mainstays during virulent flu seasons.

What’s more, Talbot noted, the necessity of ramped-up SARS-CoV-2 monitoring has resulted in a theoretical foundation for similar tracking for influenza outbreaks.

“The one thing that we were missing in flu (sequencing) was infrastructure,” Talbot said. “To be able to sequence thousands of viruses in a very short matter of time, we did not have. We still don’t quite have that with COVID, but we have much more than we had 3 years ago.”