Why next flu season may be severe

Low levels of flu activity amid the COVID-19 pandemic have made it more challenging for experts developing next year's flu shot to predict which strains will predominate next winter, reports Politico.

Without a strong enough vaccine, the U.S. could experience a severe flu season.

COVID-19 safety measures helped nearly eradicate this year's season, with a flu hospitalization rate for 2020-21 of just 0.7 per 100,000 people, the lowest rate since the CDC began collecting such data in 2005.

Without COVID-19 precautions, there could be new flu strains circulating that scientists didn't anticipate, said Cody Meissner, MD, infectious disease specialist and pediatrician at Boston-based Tufts Children's Hospital and panelist for the FDA's independent vaccine advisory committee.  

"We may have a combination of low public health measures at the population level with a low effectiveness vaccine," said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown University. "And then so you might have a raging flu season next year."

The low levels of the virus this season were still enough for the FDA committee to pick strains for the upcoming vaccine, said Paul Offit, MD, a vaccine expert at Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania and member of the FDA advisory panel. Dr. Offit said he is not worried about the vaccine for next fall. 

Mr. Gostin said pandemic fatigue could have people ditching masking and social distancing just in time for the flu, referring back to the 1918 flu pandemic. 

"What happened was the roaring '20s," Mr. Gostin told Politico. "People started congregating, mingling, hugging, kissing. All the things they missed. … That's what's likely to happen this fall and that makes the influenza virus very happy."


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