Slobodan Paessler, professor and influenza researcher at UTMB's Sealy Center for Vaccine DevelopmentResearchers at UTMB are preparing for the potential world-wide spread of a new avian flu strain (H7N9) that caused severe disease in China last spring. UTMB’s Sealy Center for Vaccine Development (SCVD) is teaming up with Baylor College of Medicine to join researchers from seven other Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to test vaccines to protect against the illness in adults.

According to the World Health Organization, the H7N9 influenza strain was found only in birds until last spring when it was detected in 135 people in China, most of whom had contact with poultry. Most people had severe respiratory infections, and 44 people – or 32 percent of those who were ill – died. While the average age of those stricken with the H7N9 flu was 58, four cases were confirmed in children.There have been a few cases of person-to-person transmission of H7N9, mainly between family members. “So far there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission; however, it is possible that this virus could become more transmissible over time,” said Slobodan Paessler, professor and influenza researcher with UTMB’s SCVD. “Generally speaking, what makes this flu virus more dangerous than the seasonal flu viruses is that humans do not have immunity to the viruses found to infect animals — in this case birds — and that it causes severe respiratory disease in people.”

The last pandemic occurred in 2009 with the spread of H1N1 “swine flu” influenza, which originated in pigs and spread to people. Health authorities are preparing for a possible H7N9 “bird flu” re-emergence during the normal flu season when the weather turns cooler and for further virus mutation that might make it more easily transmittable between people. 

Pandemics can disrupt commerce and social institutions. “People should remember how some schools and colleges shut down in the early days of the last pandemic to try to prevent the spread,” said Dr. Richard Rupp, pediatrician and director of SCVD’s Clinical Trials Group.  “A severe influenza strain would require prolonged closures.”

Typically, vaccines are the first line of defense against influenza. Within two or three weeks of getting a flu vaccine, the body mounts an immune response by making antibodies that fight the flu virus. Those who are vaccinated might not get sick if they are exposed to influenza, or might have a much milder or shorter case of the illness. This year’s seasonal flu vaccine was not designed to protect against H7N9, which makes the evaluation of H7N9 vaccine candidates all the more important. This important study will help us learn more about protecting us from pandemic influenza, said Rupp.

This round of research will recruit up to 1,000 adults nationally, 19 to 64 years old and in good health. Study participants will receive different dosages of an investigational vaccine given with and without one of two adjuvants, which are substances added to a vaccine to increase the body’s immune response.  The main goal is to learn about the ability of this investigational vaccine to trigger an immune response, which is needed for the vaccine to be considered protective against the flu.

Eight Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units, which are funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the NIH, will participate in trials that investigate an H7N9 influenza vaccine: Baylor College of Medicine, Houston; Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati; Emory University, Atlanta; Group Health Cooperative, Seattle; Saint Louis University, St. Louis; University of Iowa, Iowa City; University of Maryland, Baltimore; and Vanderbilt University, Nashville. Additionally, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston will be conducting the trial as a subcontractor to Baylor College of Medicine.

Further information about both clinical trials can be found at using the identifiers: NCT01938742 and NCT01942265.On the forefront of research in fighting and preventing infectious diseases, UTMB has received many grants and contracts to study vaccines, therapeutics and the natural progression of infectious diseases. The SCVD’s Clinical Trials Group at UTMB evaluates new and improved vaccines for diseases such as influenza, as well as novel ways of delivering the vaccines. 

For more information or to volunteer for a vaccine clinical trial, call 409-772-5278, email or visit