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COVID-19 has had a huge impact on societies and healthcare systems around the globe.
The effect of COVID-19 has been so significant because it is caused by a new type of virus, which no one had been exposed to before. Additionally, there were no vaccines, diagnostic solutions, standard treatment approaches or medicines available to specifically treat it.
Through the perspective of Dr Barry Clinch, Global Head of Influenza and Infectious Disease at Roche, we examine SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in contrast to influenza, a very common type of seasonal respiratory virus.
It’s hard to spot the difference
Influenza, or the flu, and COVID-19 are both respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses. COVID-19 comes from the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, while flu is caused by influenza viruses.1 Both viruses can be spread between people in close contact through droplets that come from coughing, sneezing and talking.
The importance of testing
Due to the similarity in symptoms between COVID-19 and influenza, early and widespread reliable testing is more important than ever to help healthcare practitioners differentiate between the SARS-CoV-2 and influenza A/B viruses.
As a trusted partner and leader in infectious disease, Roche has been vigilant in offering accurate diagnostic tests. This enables healthcare providers to quickly and effectively differentiate between the SARS-CoV-2 and influenza A/B viruses, make informed treatment decisions and improve patient outcomes.
Additionally, the quest for effective treatments and a preventive vaccine depends on the availability of fast, accurate and reliable testing. In order to establish the efficacy of a vaccine, the number of infections in the vaccinated group must be compared to that in the placebo group, and for this, testing is essential. Roche Diagnostics has been at the forefront of developing a comprehensive testing portfolio for COVID-19 and other respiratory infections, manufacturing millions of tests per month to help combat the pandemic, reduce the burden on healthcare systems and optimise patient management.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than influenza and seems to cause a higher proportion of severe disease cases.1 Individuals with COVID-19 are also more likely to be either wholly asymptomatic or spend longer in the pre-symptomatic phase due to the more gradual onset of COVID-19 symptoms, thus facilitating the spread of COVID-19.1
Taking influenza seriously
Dr Clinch comments that influenza must also be taken seriously – “globally, influenza causes up to 650,000 respiratory-related deaths and millions of hospitalisations each year, placing a considerable burden on healthcare systems worldwide.”2 Influenza can result in serious health problems, including not only pneumonia, but also swelling of the heart muscle, swelling of the brain and sepsis, all of which can increase the risk of death.3
Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare systems globally are encouraging individuals to get the influenza vaccine as soon as possible to reduce the risk of becoming sick with influenza, and help minimise further strain on hospitals.1 Although influenza vaccines are an important first line of defence in preventing the spread of influenza, the effectiveness of vaccines is often variable due to low uptake and mismatches between the vaccine and circulating influenza virus strains.4,5,6
Therefore, even with optimal vaccine efficacy, there is still a need for antiviral treatments for influenza, as they have been shown to not only shorten the duration of influenza symptoms7,8 but can also reduce the risk of severe illness and death.9 Dr Clinch notes that, “it may be tempting to ask for an antibiotic to manage your viral influenza infection. However, antibiotics are not an appropriate treatment as they are designed to treat bacterial infections and have no effect on viral infections.”10
COVID-19 and the influenza season
As of 27 January, 2021, there have been over 100 million positive COVID-19 cases globally and over 2 million deaths.11
The World Health Organization (WHO) and public health officials have urged communities to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 through various measures that include:
Wearing a mask
Frequently washing your hands or using alcohol-based hand sanitiser
These same measures have also helped stop the spread of other respiratory viruses, like influenza. During the 2020 - 2021 influenza season, across the globe, circulatory levels of influenza have remained low and have not yet shown a seasonal increase as per prior years.
Due to unprecedented efforts by the global scientific community, COVID-19 vaccination is underway and there are a range of investigative treatment options. It is hoped that these important developments will begin to start to turn the tide of the pandemic and enable healthcare systems to better manage the care of people with COVID-19.
Our role at Roche
As an industry leader in infectious disease diagnostics, therapeutics and immunology, Roche has been able to quickly collaborate, develop and manufacture solutions to support the pandemic response and for future planning of other similar situations. We are committed to providing innovative and accurate diagnostic tests and therapeutics by partnering with health authorities, regulatory agencies, pharmaceutical companies and local communities across the world. Roche’s mission is to respond quickly during challenging healthcare crises to ensure that we utilise our expertise to help alleviate the burden on healthcare systems and all of society.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [Internet; cited January 2021]. The difference between influenza and COVID-19. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm.
World Health Organisation. Global influenza strategy 2019 – 2030. [Internet; cited January 2021]. Available from: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/311184/9789241515320-eng.pdf?sequence=18&isAllowed=y.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu symptoms and complications. [Internet; cited January 2021]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm.
World Health Organization. Influenza vaccines. [Internet; cited January 2021]. Available from: https://www.who.int/influenza/vaccines/en/.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccine effectiveness: How well flu vaccines work. [Internet; cited January 2021]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/vaccines-work/vaccineeffect.htm.
Shang M, et al. Influenza vaccine effectiveness among patients with high-risk medical conditions in the United States, 2012-2016. Vaccine. 2018;36(52):8047-8053.
The MIST (Management of Influenza in the Southern Hemisphere Trialists) Study Group.Randomised trial of efficacy and safety of inhaled zanamivir in treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. Lancet. 1998;352:1877–81.
Treanor JJ, et al. Efficacy and safety of the oral neuraminidase inhibitor oseltamivir in treating acute influenza: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2000;283:1016–24.
Klepser ME. Socioeconomic impact of seasonal (epidemic) influenza and the role of over-the-counter medicines. Drugs. 2014;74:1467–79.
Imanpur S, et al. Factors associated with antibiotic prescriptions for the viral origin diseases in office-based practices, 2006–2012. JRSM Open. 2017;8(8):2054270417717668.
John Hopkins. Coronavirus resource center. COVID-19 dashboard. [Internet; cited January 2021]. Available from: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html.