Inside a handful of laboratories on the fourth floor of the Wadsworth Center, white-coated scientists are tracking a virus that sent 1,167 New Yorkers to the hospital last year and killed 34 children in the past four years.
The 900,000-square-foot facility houses one lab, in particular, that requires the full get-up: coat, hood and boots.
“It’s called the dirty PCR lab,” says Dr. Kirsten St. George, who oversees the Laboratory of Viral Diseases for the state Department of Health.
Behind the door, a man in white is examining the first resistant strains of influenza to pop up this flu season. He’ll need to shower before entering any other room to avoid contaminating his colleagues with tiny pieces of amplified genetic material.
The strains he’s looking at won’t respond well to this year’s flu vaccine, which includes strains of Influenza A, H1N1, H3N2 and Influenza B.
“Every flu season is different, because influenza viruses mutate rapidly and change from year to year,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Maxted at a news conference Tuesday.
The state Department of Health is especially equipped to track these changes, with the man behind the “dirty PCR” lab door identifying mutations that half of the nation’s labs cannot.
Some good news this year: “We’ve actually been very fortunate,” says St. George from just outside the door. “Resistance levels are very low so far.”
The Viral Diseases Lab is one of four divisions at the state-of-the-art Wadsworth Center. The lab is made up of four sub-labs, a molecular development team and a special projects unit that all help to detect and characterize viruses for surveillance and reference testing, and when need be, investigate disease outbreaks.
In a compact laboratory space that houses complicated-looking equipment labeled with names like “Elaine,” three scientists examine the earliest flu specimens from patients around the state.
St. George speaks softly while narrating their actions. When a primary care doctor or a hospital suspects a patient has the flu, they send a specimen here where scientists will detect, type, subtype and sequence them for strain analysis. The state Department of Health reports its findings to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
“The CDC and WHO are really completely dependent on labs such as these for that surveillance data,” she says, “so they can know what is circulating and be able to tell which viruses it should look to put into next year’s vaccine.”
They also provide the data that determines whether the vaccine used this year will protect against the viruses in circulation next year, or whether they’ve become resistant.
To an outsider, it’s difficult to understand how the scientists examining computer screens and running samples within the laboratories of the Wadsworth Center can tell one year from the next. They’ve already begun work on next season’s flu vaccine, while ramping up surveillance for the current season — which technically begins in October.
“A new flu season is coming up,” said state Health Commissioner Nirav Shah at Tuesday’s news conference from the center’s first floor. “New Yorkers can be confident that this lab has all of the molecular-level tools in place to protect them and detect the flu at the earliest possible time.”
To really send the message home, Shah rolled up his sleeve and took his flu shot with a big grin. The season won’t peak until March, but it’s never too early to get the flu shot, he said.
“This year, we’re making a special push to get everyone vaccinated early,” he said. “In fact, hundreds of state health employees have already been vaccinated. Remember the flu is preventable. You just need to get vaccinated. It’s safe, simple and takes only a few minutes of your time.”
Flu shots are usually available at a doctor’s office, pharmacy or health clinics.