For years, researchers around the world have been working on a universal influenza vaccine. Given the seriousness of the flu and the resources it takes to promote vaccination every year, a universal vaccine would be a major advance in public health. The flu can debilitate even young, healthy people and can be dangerous or even deadly for the very young, older adults, and people with chronic conditions or other risk factors. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends most everyone six months and older get the annual flu shot to protect themselves and others.
The two major types of seasonal influenza viruses that can infect humans are A and B. Type A viruses are constantly changing and are the ones usually responsible for yearly epidemics. Certain molecules cover the surface of the type A virus. One molecule, called hemagglutinin, has a head and a stem. The head draws key immune system cells that produce antibodies that can neutralize the flu virus. Researchers are exploring how they can anchor the stem and remove the head to be able to study the antibodies that may be a good template for vaccine design.
Another research team has developed an experimental multi-year vaccine based on the genetic sequences of flu strains that have appeared in the past century. By targeting the variants of the past, this group is hoping for a vaccine that works for five or 10 years, which would still be an improvement over an annual shot.
Analysis: As Tom Frieden, MD, reflected on his final days as director of the CDC, he said in a recent interview that the threat of influenza still keeps him up at night. He mentioned the 1918-19 pandemic that killed at least 50 million people and new animal strains that continue to emerge. He continues to remind Americans to get a flu shot. The CDC is reporting that every state has influenza outbreaks at this point, and this year’s season is a little worse than last year’s, which was relatively mild. That means busy hospitals and emergency rooms across the country and many missed days of work and school.
To produce an annual flu shot, scientists must predict as accurately as they can which strains are most likely to infect the population. It takes around six months to generate enough injectable doses to meet demand, and a missed prediction can have serious consequences. In 2009, after the annual vaccine was produced, an unanticipated strain of H1N1 emerged and caused 18,000 confirmed deaths, which is likely only a fraction of the actual deaths. A universal flu vaccine has the potential to save many lives and cut down on the annual costs to coordinate and promote the seasonal flu shot.
This weekly series explores innovative breakthroughs and new technologies that are driving momentum and change in the life sciences and health care industry.