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St. Jude graduate students work to find a dual vaccine for the flu and COVID

Maria Smith and Ana Vazquez-Pagan focus their research on the flu and how it impacts vulnerable populations like pregnant women and those who are obese.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — With all the talk about COVID-19 over the past two years, there is one virus that has proven to be even more stubborn and keeps coming back year after year. 

That is the flu virus, and while not as deadly, it can still be very dangerous.

Two graduate students at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital are on the cutting edge of improving not just the flu vaccines, but COVID as well.

Both Ana Vazquez Pagan and Maria Smith are also doing their own research on the flu and how it impacts vulnerable populations.

"We really care about our most vulnerable population and our high-risk populations," Pagan said.

Pregnant women and those who are obese are included in the numbers. Smith and Pagan's research on the flu and its impacts, is personal.

"Both of us are from the Caribbean and the Virgin Islands and from both of our experiences, there's not a lot of research being done on populations back at home, so we are in the minority if you will. So they're more so underrepresented in the research," Smith explained. 

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The ladies said questions about the impacts on these vulnerable populations have been in the air for many years.

"We've known that pregnant people are at a higher risk since 1918. It's been over 100 years and here we are still asking those questions," Vazquez stated. "That's primarily because we have had some limitations in research and we've been able to get better tools to ask better questions and I think being here at St. Jude has been a big part of that for me and Maria."

The women are a part of a group of other grad students, post-doctoral fellows, senior scientists, research technologists, and more. 

The goal for the group as a whole is to create a universal flu vaccine that will protect everyone against all influenza strains. 

The ladies work under Dr. Stacey Schultz-Cherry who runs the infectious disease lab at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"We've seen the success with the mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, so yes that opens up a world of possibilities for the flu," Schultz said. 

The group is also working to create a dual vaccine for both COVID and the flu to cut down on the number of shots.

"The Flu is going to be a little bit trickier than SARS-CoV-2 because so many people have been vaccinated before," Schultz-Cherry said. "They've been infected, so our bodies will respond at level, so we have to get over that response and find a new response."

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She said they are having to do that as we get more and more variants, which means it will be more challenging, but it is not something that can not be overcome.

She stated that at this point it is not about who gets it first, it is really a competition of us versus the virus. 

No word yet on when the vaccine will be available since there are many steps it still has to go through for approval.

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