A trial to find more effective flu treatments is being launched in the UK. Flu deaths hit a five-year high last winter, with nearly 15,000 excess deaths recorded. It can kill up to 25,000 people in the UK in a bad year – but treatments for worst cases are still lacking, experts say.
The Recovery trial will offer hospital patients different drugs to see if any will be lifesavers, as a cheap steroid was found to be during Covid.
Annual flu shots help prevent infection, but each year, some people become very sick with influenza.
There is also the threat of a global pandemic flu outbreak, which, according to planning scenarios, could see many millions infected, up to about half of them becoming ill and some also developing potentially fatal complications such as pneumonia. Even in a normal flu year, it can kill between 290,000 and 650,000 people.
The BBC is reporting that the trial’s joint chief investigator Sir Peter Horby, of the University of Oxford, said it was a persistent menace.
“As well as being the greatest pandemic risk, influenza remains a serious annual scourge,” he said. “Yet we have no treatments that have been proven to improve outcomes in hospitalised patients.”
The trial will test pills such as oseltamivir, or Tamiflu, an antiviral the government has been criticised for stockpiling and spending hundreds of millions of pounds on following concerns about swine flu. Given within a couple of days of symptoms developing, it is designed to reduce the severity of infections and has already been shown to benefit mild flu.
Other treatments that will be tried include:
baloxavir marboxil, or Xofluza, an antiviral already licensed to treat uncomplicated mild influenza
low-dose corticosteroids shown to benefit some patients admitted to hospital with Covid
Last winter saw the first widespread flu since the start of Covid pandemic. That 2022-23 season began earlier than usual but peaked quickly. There are several reasons why it hit harder, experts say.
The population was more susceptible to catching flu, having been locked down during Covid, and influenza A H3N2, the type circulating last winter, is more severe in older people.
This autumn, flu cases have been starting to rise again but within the typical range for the time of year.
And it is too early to predict which influenza lineages will dominate, experts say.
People in the UK who are over 64, have certain health conditions or a learning disability, are pregnant or care for or work or live with vulnerable people may be eligible for both flu and Covid vaccines.
A nasal flu vaccine is available to children at primary and secondary school or, for two-three-year-olds, from their GP.