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This will NOT protect you from swine flu

I did not get my flu shot last fall. The threat of, or at least the media attention about, “avian flu” had abated, and I missed the opportunity. I did, however, collect a box of influenza virus vaccine for the museum’s pharmaceutical collection. The box of FluMist was sitting on my desk when news of the “swine flu” broke in late April, renewing my fear of flu pandemic. FluMist, introduced in 2003, is the first nasal spray flu vaccine. It requires no shot as it is delivered painlessly (according to the manufacturer) through the nose in a fine spray. But my newly-acquired artifact will not protect me from “swine flu”; it was formulated for a completely different mutation of the influenza virus.

“Swine flu” has abated from the public’s attention these last few months. It was quietly declared a pandemic on June 11 by UN health officials. Now, in August, news stories about it are appearing in the local press more frequently. That is probably because in the northern hemisphere, flu season is fast approaching, and it will soon be time for flu shots (or mists). I suspect most of us will not be lackadaisical about our flu vaccine this fall.

So now is as good a time as any to take a closer look at the Museum’s collection of influenza vaccines. FluMist is just the latest addition to the museum’s collection of vaccines, which include smallpox, polio, and the plague. Vaccines are not, for the most part, very interesting to LOOK at. Who after all really LOOKS at a vaccine? When I receive a shot I deliberately look away. But these objects are imprinted with bits and pieces of history that reflect our continuing struggle with influenza and our attempts to understand and control it.

1. Shermans-Influenza-vaccine Sherman’s Influenza Vaccine No. 38 made by G.H. Sherman Bacteriological Laboratories of Detroit, Michigan, 1937. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 the best medical minds in the country were focused on the problem of discovering the cause of the flu and how to prevent it—and they failed. Sherman’s Vaccine was developed in response to the pandemic. Essentially it was a “stew” of numerous bacterial strains (“influenza-bacillus-pneumococcus-streptococcus-staphylococcus-micrococcus-catarrhalis vaccine”), including that of the “influenza bacillus,” which had been identified in the 1890’s as the probable cause of influenza. The bacillus resisted attempts to completely prove or disprove its essential role in the disease and so remained for a long time our “best guess.” The human influenza virus was not isolated until 1933; this sample of Sherman’s Vaccine dates to 1937.

2.P-D-Influenza-Virus-vaccineInfluenza Virus Vaccine, Types A and B made by Parke, Davis and Co. of Detroit, Michigan, 1945-46. WWII propelled vaccine development and influenza research. Nobody wanted a repeat of the pandemic that devastated the troops and general population in WWI. The influenza virus had finally been identified, and the problem of how to grow it (in chicken eggs) was largely solved. “Prepared in the extra-embryonic fluid of the chick embryo” is stated prominently on this package of one of the earliest influenza virus vaccines.

3. Influenza-Vaccine-Asian-StrInfluenza Vaccine, Monovalent Type A made by the National Drug Company of Philadelphis, PA, 1958-59. This vaccine was formulated specifically to combat the H2N2 “Asian strain” which caused the Asian Flu pandemic of 1957-58, our first pandemic since 1918, resulting in 70,000 deaths in US. Thimersol, a mercury derivative, is listed as a preservative. It would eventually be eliminated from most vaccines due to fear that it may cause neurological damage to infants.

4. FluogenFluogen, Influenza Vaccine, Bivalent made by Parke Davis and Co, 1972. This specimen reflects the emergence of the H3N2 strain which caused the Hong Kong Flu pandemic of 1968-69 (34,000 deaths in US). It also has been formulated specifically for the 1972-73 flu season. The practice of annual reformulation continues today with implications about the limits of the efficacy of flu vaccines and their profitability of manufacture. Note that Thimersol is still used as the preservative.

5. FlumistFluMist, Influenza Virus Vaccine Live, Intranasal made by MedImmune Vaccines of Gaithersburg, Maryland 2007. This vaccine contains three strains of the virus: two Type A: H1N1 (“Spanish flu””) and H3N2 (“Hong Kong flu”), and one Type B; but nothing for H5N1, the “Avian flu” strain that in the past few years has been the focus of our pandemic fears. Note that the virus in this vaccine is live, although in a weakened form, reflecting a long and continuing debate over the relative merits of live vs. killed virus vaccines.

The museum’s collection of influenza vaccines is by no means comprehensive. In fact our collecting over many years is somewhat spotty. But this year I plan to get two specimens of flu vaccine; one in my arm and one for the national collections.

Update on January 14, 2013: The 2009 vaccine has been added to the museum's collection. 

6. Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 Monovalent Vaccine made by CSL limited, Parkville Australia.

Here is the latest addition to the museum's collection of flu vaccines. This monovalent vaccine was developed in 2009 specifically for the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic.

Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 Monovalent Vaccine made by CSL limited, Parkville Australia.
Diane Wendt is Associate Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History.