The Strain Of Flu Shot Logistics

Did you get a flu shot this year? How about last year? In a world of next-day delivery and instant downloads, making the yearly pilgrimage to the doctor or the minute clinic feels like an outdated concept. Even if you get your shots free at the office, it’s still a pain to have to get vaccinated every year.

Unfortunately, there’s really no other way to deal with the annual threat of influenza. There’s no single vaccine for the flu because there are multiple strains that are always mutating. Unlike other viruses with one-and-done vaccinations, influenza is a moving target. Developing, producing, and distributing millions of vaccines every year is a massive operation that never stops, or even slows down a little bit. It’s basically Santa Claus territory — if Santa Claus delivered us all from mass epidemics.

The numbers are staggering. For the 2018-19 season, as in last year, there were 169.1 million doses distributed in the United States, up from 155.3 million doses the year before. How do they do it? We’re gonna roll up our sleeves and take a stab at it.

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Go Small, Get Big: The Hack That Revolutionized Bioscience

Few people outside the field know just how big bioscience can get. The public tends to think of fields like physics and astronomy, with their huge particle accelerators and massive telescopes, as the natural expressions of big science. But for decades, biology has been getting bigger, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Specialized labs built around the automation equipment that enables modern pharmaceutical research would dazzle even the most jaded CERN physicist, with fleets of robot arms moving labware around in an attempt to find the Next Big Drug.

I’ve written before on big biology and how to get more visibility for the field into STEM programs. But how exactly did biology get big? What enabled biology to grow beyond a rack of test tubes to the point where experiments with millions of test occasions are not only possible but practically required? Was it advances in robots, or better detection methodologies? Perhaps it was a breakthrough in genetic engineering?

Nope. Believe it or not, it was a small block of plastic with some holes drilled in it. This is the story of how the microtiter plate allowed bioscience experiments to be miniaturized to the point where hundreds or thousands of tests can be done at a time.

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