50 years ago, a flu pandemic spurred vaccine research

Excerpt from the September 21, 1968 issue of Science News

1968 Hong Kong pandemic flu strain

MAKING THE ROUNDS  The influenza strain responsible for the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968, called H3N2 (shown here in a colorized microscope image), was also responsible for 2017–18’s severe flu season.

Dr. Fred Murphy/CDC, adapted by E. Otwell

Science News cover from Sept. 21, 1968Girding against a new strain

Flu comes in many kinds, and the current vaccine … has little effect against a newcomer that has afflicted at least 400,000 persons in Hong Kong. The Asian city was the source of the 1957 epidemic in the United States. Fears that it may provide a springboard for another one have caused the Public Health Service to ask eight pharmaceutical companies to begin production of a specialized vaccine.— Science News, September 21, 1968


The 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic killed about a million people worldwide. A vaccine became available only after the pandemic had peaked. Even today, flu vaccine development is tricky because the three types of influenza virus that infect people are moving targets that change, or mutate, often. But scientists are getting closer to making universal flu vaccines that would protect against many flu strains over multiple seasons. Some candidates target parts of the influenza virus that are less prone to mutate. Others compile all seemingly possible mutations of a particular flu variety into one vaccine (SN: 10/28/17, p. 18).

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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