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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. (Photo courtesy of The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.)

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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