It’s a dynamic time in the COVID-19 pandemic, with new SARS-CoV-2 variants emerging and an uncertain seasonal flu season approaching. Additionally, there is complexity in predicting the potential public health and pathological effects of these two viruses merging due to the lack of significant flu activity in the winter of 2020-2021.
During the recent AACC Annual Scientific Meeting, Manoj Gandhi, M.D., Ph.D., Thermo Fisher’s senior director of medical affairs, Genetic Sciences, talked about the similarities and differences between COVID-19 and flu, along with virus-specific considerations for clinical care. Regardless of what the next few months have in store, Dr. Gandhi emphasizes that testing will be a key measure in controlling viral transmission and staying ahead of demand as we move toward a conceivable increased strain on healthcare resources.
Why distinguishing COVID-19 from flu matters
Especially in mild disease, flu and COVID-19 can present similarly and might be difficult to tell apart based solely on signs and symptoms. Both can initially cause cough, fatigue, and fever, with COVID-19 adding the unique identifier of loss of taste or smell in some instances. At this stage, care for patients with either virus would typically involve managing symptoms through rest and over-the-counter therapies. Both are also capable of infecting someone without causing symptoms, allowing a person to transmit the virus unknowingly.
The clinical effects of the two viruses start to diverge as severity of disease increases. Looking at affected populations, COVID-19 has thus far had limited health impact on children, relatively, with most serious cases being reported in the elderly and those with underlying conditions. Flu, however, has historically been a threat to both older and younger groups, with notable spread in daycares and schools.
Physiologically, the progression to severe COVID-19 looks very different from a serious flu infection, warranting different management strategies. SARS-CoV-2 causes an overactivation of the immune system, or cytokine storm, that results in clotting and an attack on multiple tissues, including the lungs, leading to the need for mechanical ventilation in some cases. In addition to using the antiviral drug remdesivir and monoclonal antibodies to help patients fight the virus, corticosteroids and other immunomodulators are brought on board to dampen this damaging response.
The primary danger with flu, on the other hand, is secondary bacterial infection, making a strong immune response favorable to recovery and corticosteroids contraindicated. In addition to the antiviral drug oseltamivir, antibiotics can be used to fight these secondary infections as needed.
Efficient and reliable testing for COVID-19 and flu
Due to the relaxation of public health countermeasures and waning immunity from vaccines over time, COVID-19 cases could continue to climb as the Northern Hemisphere moves into what could be an active flu season. Additionally, the potential for coinfection with both viruses is a real possibility with unknown clinical consequence.
In the event of concurrent spread within communities, access to multiplex testing is critical so clinicians can provide efficient and reliable COVID-19 and flu results simultaneously. The ability to easily test patients for both viruses will help providers make the important decisions related to treatment and quarantine that could affect health outcomes and prevent further transmission.
Thermo Fisher Scientific’s TaqPath COVID-19, Flu A, Flu B Combo Kit offers a highly accurate PCR test option for detecting multiple flu strains and COVID-19. This assay was designed with two SARS-CoV-2 targets to remain robust in the face of emerging variants and was successful in identifying both influenza A and influenza B independently and in combination with COVID-19 in studies.
Since the earliest days of the pandemic, testing was and has remained one of the most valuable frontline tools in fighting COVID-19. In March of 2020, test makers and public health organizations had to scramble to develop, manufacture, and provide access to reliable tests. While much uncertainty for the future of both viruses remains, healthcare systems now have a head start with the opportunity to proactively arm themselves with the resources necessary to effectively respond to this potentially unprecedented influx of infections and coinfections.
If you missed Dr. Gandhi’s talk at AACC, you can access it, along with many other expert-led discussions on laboratory testing and patient care, on demand at the Labroots Clinical Diagnostics & Research 2021 virtual event.
To learn more about Thermo Fisher Scientific’s COVID-19 and flu testing options, please visit https://www.thermofisher.com/covid19flu for EUA solutions, or https://www.thermofisher.com/covid19flursv for CE-IVD solutions.
For Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) only. For prescription use only. For in vitro diagnostic use.