Australia is about to enter its flu season amid a global coronavirus outbreak. While the flu is a nasty virus, COVID-19 threatens to affect many more of us with serious consequences. As it turns out, you can actually get both coronavirus and the seasonal flu at the same time — though it might not be as bad as it sounds.
Flu season comes around every year, peaking in July and August, infecting thousands of Australians and sadly, resulting in a number of deaths. Luckily, there’s a seasonal flu shot available each year as a preventative measure for the major flu strains spreading around.
This year’s season, however, will coincide with a global pandemic of coronavirus and it got us thinking: What if you managed to get both at the same time?
Professor Ian Barr, Deputy Director of the WHO Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, told Gizmodo Australia it can actually happen.
“Early reports [from China] have shown co-infections of influenza and COVID-19 as well as other respiratory viruses,” Professor Barr said to Gizmodo Australia over the phone.
Having more than one virus at the same time, as it turns out, is not uncommon and Professor Barr explained it’s often seen in children. The good news here is that it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a double dosage of the viruses.
“When you use sensitive detection techniques, such as the ones we use today — the molecular techniques, you can detect these other viruses,” Professor Barr said.
“Whether or not they’re all playing a similar pathogenic role, or whether they’re just some of them are along for the ride a little bit and not causing too much damage, that’s hard to tease out.”
“It depends a little bit on who’s winning the battle.”
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Given COVID-19 is a novel virus — never before seen in humans — many of the finer clinical studies that would usually let us know how bad the effects could be if you were to get both, have not yet to be completed or published.
This is why it’s going to be essential for those most vulnerable to coronavirus to get the flu shot this season, but it’s also something we should all be prioritising. Saying that, Professor Barr said it was not going to completely rule out your chance of getting the seasonal flu.
“It’s not a vaccine, it has an effectiveness of around 60 per cent,” Professor Barr said.
“For some influenza viruses, like Influenza B, it could be up to 80 per cent effectiveness, and for H3, it could be down to 50 per cent or lower. So, it certainly is beneficial and will protect a good proportion of the population but it’s not a perfect vaccine.”
The flu shot, while not perfect, does a good job of reducing the four known viruses that commonly circulate the human population. Professor Barr said these included Influenza A H1, Influenza A H3 as well as two Influenza B types — the Victoria and Yamagata strains.
“They vary in proportions from country to country,” Professor Barr said but all four were in circulation in various places and at various times.
While it’s not yet known if coronavirus will be one of these regularly circulating flu strains, previous strains like the H1N1, which sparked the 2009 swine flu pandemic, now feature in seasonal flu shots. Professor Barr said he hoped it would be unlikely.
“The coronaviruses to date don’t radically change from year to year but that’s not to say that [COVID-19] might not change over a longer period of time. I think it’s unlikely we would need to vaccinate every year,” Professor Barr said.
If that wasn’t the case, however, adding a coronavirus vaccine, whenever that’s developed, to the seasonal flu shot line up isn’t as simple as it might sound.
“It sounds smart to do that [add a coronavirus vaccine to the flu shot]. But then you have to do the clinical trials to show that the COVID-19 vaccine would still work and the influenza vaccine would still not be affected,” Professor Barr said.
“Logistically, it sounds like it might be a good way to go. But I think practically, it would take longer to register the vaccine, make it more complicated administering the vaccine, and probably isn’t needed longer term, providing the COVID-19 virus doesn’t alter dramatically, which we wouldn’t expect to happen for a number of years.”
Regardless of what the future holds for Australia this flu season, it serves as a reminder to organise that flu shot for your vulnerable family members, friends and yourself as soon as you possibly can.