Scientists to give 10 volunteers the deadly H3N2 flu this summer

Would YOU get the flu for science? 10 volunteers will be given the deadly H3N2 strain this summer in a bid to see who gets sickest – and why

  • Last flu season was one of the worst in decades with historic death tolls worldwide
  • Four groups of research around the world plan to give volunteers the flu
  • In the UK, 10 people will suffer through the deadly H3N2 strain this summer 
  • Researchers at Imperial College London hope to see why the virus makes some fatally ill and barely sickens others 
  • These ‘human challenge’ studies may lead to a universal vaccine some day 

Ten people will suffer through one of the most forceful strains of flu this summer to help British scientists develop a test for the severity of the illness. 

After the H3N2 strain proved deadly for thousands of people the world over this past winter, researchers are scrambling for better tests and treatments for the flu. 

The team at Imperial College London are working on a diagnostic tool that would tell them which patients are at risk of getting critically ill before they get infected. They also hope that the research will help them to develop a better – perhaps even universal – vaccine.  

The team at Imperial College London are working on a diagnostic tool that would tell them which patients are at risk of getting critically ill before they get infected. 

They also hope that the research will help scientists to develop a better – perhaps even universal – vaccine through a spate of trials that will sicken volunteers for science, including one in the US.

In order to do so, their next step is to get 10 brave volunteers sick and monitor their reactions for signs of what underlying differences between them might make some get sicker than others. 

Imperial College London scientists plan to give 10 volunteers the potent H3N2 strain of the flu this summer to work out why some people get fatally ill and others recover just fine 

Despite its best efforts, the worldwide medical community’s efforts to prevent and treat the flu fell short last year. 

Our best vaccines and medicines were relatively helpless against some of the strains of the flu that swept the globe – particularly H3N2. 

The flu poses a number of steep challenges to infectious disease specialists. For one, each of its strains has a different genetic makeup and every person may respond differently to an infection with each of them. 

The H3N2 strain was particularly potent, broadly speaking, but while most recovered with treatment, even medication could not save the lives of a small percentage of victims. 

And it isn’t entirely clear to scientists what distinguishes those hardest hit from those who sail through the sickness. 

Likely, each person’s immune system, previous exposures and DNA determine their response to the virus, but the exact interplay of those elements remains unknown – for now. 

Imperial College researchers believe that the best way to find out is to observe how different people respond to being sick in a controlled environment. 

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‘When people are infected naturally, it is almost impossible to know exactly when they were exposed to the virus, what strain of virus it is, and how much they received,’ lead investigator Dr Chris Chiu told The Telegraph. 

‘Volunteer infection studies allow us to control some of these factors so that changes in the immune response responsible for controlling or worsening disease are revealed,’ he added. 


This season’s flu vaccine was only about 36 percent effective overall and only 25 percent effective against the predominant and deadly H3N2 strain.

During the 2017-2018 flu season, the virus the shot was based on was said to be a ‘mismatch’ that underwent mutations during development. 

Each year, a number of candidate flu vaccine viruses are selected and injected into eggs where they are incubated and replicate, or multiply, for several weeks.

During this period, like any living thing, the virus cells are liable to mutate before the antigens – the part of a virus that provokes an immune response – are extracted.

These antigens put the immune system on high alert for that particular strain of a virus, so that the body is primed to attack it over any other pathogen.

If the antigens come from a mutated virus, they may not provide the correct preventative immune response.

But University of Chicago research suggested this year that the shot’s effectiveness depends largely on each individuals history of flu exposures and shots, or immune history.  

The human immune system seems to pick up on the presence of a flu strain – from either the vaccine or the flu itself – and respond as if it were whatever the first strain it encountered had been.  


To that end, they will be one of just four institutions in the world allowed to sicken volunteers with the flu. 

Studying the flu’s effects on the human body in real time would be one of the best ways to understand the virus in detail but, of course, comes with higher risks.

In order to do their experiment, the researchers will have to infect their 10 volunteers with H3N2 with a nasal spray. 

Then, they will keep them quarantined at the medical school for 10 days to see how their bodies respond to the illness. 

A similar ‘human challenge’ study is to take place in the US at the University of St Louis where researchers will put their volunteers up in ‘Hotel Influenza’ after giving some a trial universal vaccine and others the placebo. Everyone involved will get the flu. 

At Imperial College, the main goal is to study the differences in people’s immune responses to the H3N2, but this information may be key to the development of a universal vaccine as well.   

‘The immediate benefit of these trials would be to develop a test to risk assess the patient and better understand whether they will become severely ill or just get better, so you could start treatment earlier or admit them to hospital,’ lead study author Dr Chiu told The Telegraph.

‘If you can work out at the front door who is going to get better you can focus more effort on the people who are really at risk,’ he said. 

In addition to their long-term benefits for the creation of a better or even universal vaccine, these sorts of studies could help medical professionals and hospitals respond more effectively and efficiently to the flu. 

Last flu season was estimated to cost the US $10.4 billion, and even then many hospitals were overrun and the country faced vaccine shortages. A better understanding of the virus could help doctors give priority to the most vulnerable patients, saving lives and money.

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