New Research in Flu Protection Begins with Testing Pigs

Identifying new flu strains in animals helps predict the next flu pandemic in humans

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(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – Innovative research to improve the effectiveness of the flu vaccine begins in an unlikely place – the county fair. A team of experts at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine travel to more than 100 fairs each year, swabbing the snouts of pigs for novel strains of the flu that are likely to impact humans.

“Every flu pandemic begins in animals, and very often in pigs,” said Dr. Andrew Bowman. “At the fair, we can access pigs from lots of farms in one place, so we can do surveillance very efficiently rather than going farm-to-farm to find out what flu strains are out there.”

The program began after the 2009 flu pandemic, which began in pigs and resulted in more than 60 million cases of the flu and 12,000 deaths in the United States when it spread to humans. “If we can identify high-risk strains before they make that leap into humans, we might be able to prevent those strains from ever being introduced, or at least lessen the impact of those new strains,” said Bowman.

These new strains are especially dangerous because we don’t have any immunity to them, making them more likely to cause severe illness and death. Current flu vaccines don’t protect against new strains, but Bowman hopes the county fair program will change that. The samples his team collects from the pigs are taken to a lab for testing. If the flu is detected, they grow the virus in the lab and genetically sequence it to assess the risk to humans. 

“The flu virus is always changing and, with current vaccine technology, we have to make the best guess for which strains might be circulating,” said Bowman. “The information we’re collecting from pigs can help us create a more broadly protective vaccine that is based on strains that are truly the biggest threat to people’s health.”

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Dr. Andrew Bowman swabs a pig’s snout at the Union County, Ohio fair. The samples are taken to a lab at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine and tested for new strains of the flu that could pose a threat to humans.

Dr. Andrew Bowman prepares a sample from a pig snout for the lab. He swabs pigs at county fairs to identify new strains of the flu, which helps to identify pandemic threats and may improve the effectiveness of the flu shot.

Dr. Joshua Lorbach tests a sample from a pig for influenza in a lab at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Identifying new flu strains in pigs may help prevent the next pandemic in humans.

Pigs provide valuable information in preventing the next flu outbreak. Almost every pandemic starts in animals, and researchers are swabbing pigs at county fairs to identify these new strains before they make the leap to humans.

Veterinarian Dr. Andrew Bowman swabs pig snouts at county fairs in search of strains of the flu that could lead to the next pandemic in humans. By identifying these new strains, the research being done at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine may help create a more broadly protective flu vaccine.