After last year’s deadly flu season claimed the lives of 80,000 people and was classified by the CDC as “high severity,” scientists are left to question whether the United States should fund risky flu studies. Experts turn to a local scientific practice for guidance.
Dr. Rocco Casagrande, founder and managing director of the Gryphon Scientific practice in Takoma Park, suggests people get vaccinated as early as possible for this upcoming flu season. He also encourages children and the elderly to get vaccinated, as they are more susceptible to the virus.
The practice has worked alongside some of its clientele, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, to analyze the risk factors of funding pathogenic studies.
“[Gryphon] has been major contributors to our studies of the flu virus by assessing the pros and cons of certain studies,” says Department of Health and Human Services public information specialist Lauren Kinard.
Gryphon assists policymakers in developing effective prevention and response strategies. In 2016, the practice received praise from researchers for its 1000-page risk-benefit analysis of pathogenic studies.
“One of our findings was that it’s really important to create modified flu strains to understand how [the] flu evolves,” stated Dr. Casagrande.
“Even though that sounds dangerous—you’re making a new strain that’s risky—you’re just proving that [the] change is important.”
After the 2009 pandemic of the H1N1 virus, better known as “swine flu,” researchers have done multiple studies on what causes the pathogen’s recurrence from its appearance in the 1918 outbreak as the “Spanish flu.”
“When you need to make a new vaccine, like we did in 2009 for the [H1N1 influenza] pandemic then, the strain that they had didn’t grow very well,” says Casagrande. “The risk there was minimal because each time you’re trying to make the strain grow better, you’re mixing it with a less dangerous strain.”
While the creation of a pathogen is useful to analyzing what causes it to be recurrent in nature, the possibility of the transmission of pathogens from laboratory study to laboratory workers poses a risk to everyone outside of these laboratories.
While the studies of pathogens are essential for the creation of vaccines to prevent widespread epidemics of the flu, Casagrande encourages people throughout the District to get vaccinated.
With a virus such as the flu, there are possibilities of the illness being a fatality. The most common complication of the flu that causes death is respiratory bacterial infections. Last year’s flu season attributed to the disease’s highest death toll over the past four decades.
“It is important for people, not only in the District but throughout the nation, to get vaccinated because it lowers the possibility of spreading the flu virus amongst family and peers,” stated Casagrande.
“[Outbreak] spreads like wildfire through the poor populations, and there are racial issues to that too.”
Despite having the fourth lowest uninsured rate in the nation at the rate of 3.9%, the District has disparities in health coverage for people of color. According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, 4.3% of black residents are uninsured.
“It is much harder for [poorer people] to receive adequate access to healthcare, especially in the District,” says Casagrande. “In areas such as Wards 7 and 8, healthcare is limited because all of the major urgent care centers are located at the core of the city.”
Casagrande advises people to get flu shots at their nearest pharmacies, community health centers, or clinics in preparation for the upcoming flu season.
“From an economic point of view, from a stability point of view, and definitely from a health point of view, vaccination is the best thing people can do,” state Casagrande. “The more people who are vaccinated, the less flu will spread.”