In the controlled setting of a lab, scientists are zeroing in on what makes the flu tick.

“I think the pandemic has really brought greater attention to this type of research and the need for it,” said Virginia Tech’s Linsey Marr, the project director of MITIGATE FLU, which stands for “Multidisciplinary InvesTIGATion to Ease inFLUenza.” 

Along with Virginia Tech, the $8.8 million project also involves researchers at the University of Michigan, University of Pittsburgh, Emory University and Georgetown University all working to get a definitive answer as to how the flu spreads.

“Conventional wisdom about the flu is that it’s transmitted when people cough or sneeze in your face, and it’s these large wet droplets that carry the virus. It lands on you and you get the flu,” Marr said, “but it turns out there’s not a lot of direct evidence that supports that idea.”

So, researchers set out to see what might actually be happening when the flu starts to circulate in a community, including looking at how well masks may be able to mitigate its spread.

“What’s new about this research is that we’re bringing a really interdisciplinary approach to it,” Marr said. “It’s not just medical doctors it’s virologists, it’s engineers who understand how viruses can move around in the environment, in the air and on surfaces.”

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Researchers say one possibility is that the flu is actually transmitted not just by large wet droplets, but by fine particles that can remain suspended in the air for a long time.

“People get the flu when they’re close to others who are infected,” Marr said. “And I think we didn’t realize that, ‘Oh, maybe people are also getting it when they’re at a distance and they’re just sharing air in the same room.'”

Doctors say that’s why it’s critical to make sure as many people as possible get the flu vaccine every year, which they say could have added benefits.

“It’s kind of like keeping your immune system at its best, in peak condition so, another good reason to get your yearly flu shot, because it might reduce those common respiratory infections,” said Dr. Scott Joy, chief medical officer for HealthONE Physician Services Group.

Back at the MITIGATE FLU project, whatever the findings end up showing could potentially be used to bring about structural changes to how indoor air is handled in buildings, which is something that got a lot of attention during the pandemic.

“We kind of accept respiratory diseases right now, like colds and flu, as a way of life but maybe we don’t have to,” Marr said. “Maybe if we do start paying more attention to cleaning our indoor air, we could really reduce the burden that it places on our health and society.”

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