I wasn’t prepared for Flu the first time we met. I ran into her at what I like to call my “second office,” a half-legal seedy little nightclub joint down by the docks. She was leaning on the piano, pretending to sing the blues. One look at her figure and long blonde hair and you knew she hadn’t been hired for her singing voice. We got acquainted. Matters got real friendly; I was too distracted to notice the three tough guys sitting in the corner. Next thing I know, I’m waking up in the gutter, no wallet, high fever, a pounding headache and a throat that feels like I’ve been gargling broken glass. Damn Flu.
A year rolls by and I find myself back at that that old divey club. I see the new girl—dark hair and a red dress that leaves nothing to the imagination. We get cozy—a couple of drinks and bang! Next day I’m back in the gutter feeling about as fresh as a day old cigarette butt. I realize my mistake too late. Flu again. She’d been around the block, been associating with some new people; a little hair dye and plastic surgery and I hadn’t even recognized her.
Months pass. I hire an assistant, a tough guy we call Max the Vacc. We call him that because his real name, Maximilian Vaccination is just too many damn syllables after a few whiskeys. Anyway, good old Max the Vacc tells me about this little system he’s got all worked out. He keeps photos of all the known floozies who work the bars. Some of them are old photos, and some are wearing wigs, but he’s got most of the likely characters in his collection. We go down to my “second office” to try out the system. The new gal at the bar looked just like one of the bad girls from Max the Vacc’s mug shots, so when she came over to our table all cute-like, trying to sit on my knee—I was prepared. I had all my defenses ready. “Immunity,” I said to myself, “this Vaccination guy—I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Dashiell Hammett is probably rolling over in his grave right about now, but rhetorical flourishes aside, it's basically how the flu vaccine works. Every year, the most common flu virus is slightly different. Like a promiscuous floozy who “gets around” one human flu virus will associate with many human flu viruses and exchange genetic material. This gradual process is called antigenic drift. Flu viruses are especially well-adapted for this process because the flu virus is segmented (think a string of beads) and thus can easily re-assort the individual viral segments. (Think of cutting up two strings of beads and mixing them together—you could easily restring a new necklace from a mixture of beads from the two original necklaces.)single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.