How Flu Shots Can Help in the Fight Against Covid-19

Experts worry that the two diseases could overwhelm the health care system and create a new shortage of hospital beds and personal protective equipment.

While we anxiously await the development and approval of a safe and effective vaccine against Covid-19, there’s another health-sparing and lifesaving vaccine already available to nearly everyone over the age of 6 months.

Yes, that’s the flu vaccine, offered as an annual event that not nearly enough people partake in. The excuses are numerous, ranging from “I never get the flu” to “I had the vaccine once and still got the flu.”

The latter excuse is especially telling, reflecting a widespread misunderstanding of the nature and effectiveness of influenza vaccines that could carry over to any of the novel coronavirus vaccines that may ultimately reach the American market.

In general, flu vaccines are on average 50 percent effective in preventing infection by the main strains of influenza virus expected to be circulating in the country in the coming flu season, usually November or December to April or May. Flu vaccines are administered annually for two main reasons: 1) flu viruses mutate readily and the mix of viral strains varies from year to year, and 2) even if the viruses don’t change significantly, immunity against them gradually wanes and may be all but gone by the next flu season.

Since we already know that the antibodies people develop following a coronavirus infection seem to wane with time, there’s a good chance that any coronavirus vaccine would need to be administered repeatedly, perhaps annually, to provide adequate protection. Unlike the flu, Covid-19 has shown no evidence of having a season. Whether the weather is hot, cold, dry or wet, this coronavirus is highly infectious. But like the flu, it spreads readily from person to person, and can be transmitted even before those infected know they are contagious as well as by those who are infected and don’t become noticeably ill.

Another fact worth noting: the flu vaccine does not and cannot cause the flu. Some people may get a feverish reaction to a flu shot, but that may represent in part the body’s effort to muster an immune response.

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