In the summer of 1968, a new strain of influenza appeared in Hong Kong. This strain, known as H3N2, spread around the globe and eventually killed an estimated 1 million people.
A new study from MIT reveals that there are many strains of H3N2 circulating in birds and pigs that are genetically similar to the 1968 strain and have the potential to generate a pandemic if they leap to humans. The researchers, led by Ram Sasisekharan, the Alfred H. Caspary Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT, also found that current flu vaccines might not offer protection against these strains.
“There are indeed examples of H3N2 that we need to be concerned about,” says Sasisekharan, who is also a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “From a pandemic-preparedness point of view, we should potentially start including some of these H3 strains as part of influenza vaccines.”