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How the 1957 Flu Pandemic Was Stopped Early in Its Path

March 18, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

By the time the virus reached the U.S., the country already had a vaccine ready.

On April 17, 1957, Maurice Hilleman realized a pandemic was on its way to the United States. That day, .

In his work at Walter Reed, Hilleman had made the critical observation that the two key proteins in the flu virus—hemagglutinin and neuraminidase—undergo slight changes, or “drift,” between seasons (this insight helped him predict the need for yearly flu vaccinations).

By comparing the Navy serviceman’s virus against previous flu viruses, “what he found was that there was this dramatic shift,” Offit says. “Both those proteins were completely different from what they had been previously. They hadn’t just drifted, they’d shifted.” This new virus was a completely different strain of the flu.

Hilleman couldn’t find any evidence of population immunity to this new strain, so he sent the virus to other health organizations to confirm his findings. These organizations found that the only people who had antibodies to the virus were a small group in their 70s and 80s who had survived the “Russian flu” pandemic in 1889 and 1890.

READ MORE: Why the Second Wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu Was So Deadly

With this knowledge, Hilleman put out press releases announcing a new flu pandemic had arrived, and would reach the United States by September 1957. Though he met some resistance, he successfully convinced companies to begin working on flu vaccines to have ready by then. Fertilized chicken eggs would be necessary for this production, so he told the companies to remind farmers not to kill their roosters at the end of hatching season.

Making a vaccine for a new flu strain is very different from making a vaccine for something completely new like COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that emerged in 2019. Doctors and scientists first developed viable flu vaccines in the 1940s, so they were not starting from scratch when they went to work on the 1957 flu vaccine. Still, Hilleman bypassed regulatory agencies in his efforts to push the vaccine forward because he worried those agencies would slow the process down.

When Flu Hit the U.S., a Vaccine Was Ready

Researchers study the flu virus in a lab at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, 1957.

When the new flu strain hit the United States in September, just as Hilleman had predicted it would, the country was ready with a vaccine. The virus, dubbed …read more