A universal flu vaccine could be available in two years, says scientist | Vaccines and immunization
A universal flu vaccine that protects against all strains of the virus could be available within the next two years, according to a leading scientist.
An experimental vaccine based on the same mRNA technology used in the highly successful Covid jabs has been found to protect mice and ferrets from severe flu, paving the way for human clinical trials.
Professor John Oxford, a neurologist at Queen Mary University of London, who was not involved in the work, said the vaccine developed at the University of Pennsylvania could be ready for use next winter.
“I can’t stress enough what a breakthrough this paper is,” Oxford told BBC Radio 4’s Today. “The potential is huge and I think we sometimes underestimate these large respiratory viruses.”
Researchers have been working on universal flu vaccines for more than a decade, but the latest discovery, published in Scienceis considered a major step toward a jab that could help protect people from a potentially devastating flu pandemic.
Seasonal flu vaccines, which protect against up to four strains of the virus, are updated every year to ensure they are a good match for circulating flu viruses. The new vaccine is designed to boost the immune system against all 20 subtypes of influenza A and B, potentially arming the body to fight off any flu virus that emerges.
The last time the world experienced a flu pandemic was in 2009, when a virus spread from pigs to humans. Although that outbreak was far less deadly than health officials had feared, the 1918 flu pandemic showed how dangerous new strains could kill tens of millions of people.
Giving people a “baseline” level of immunity against the full range of flu strains could lead to far less illness and fewer deaths when the next flu pandemic hits, said Dr. Scott Hensley, team researcher in Pennsylvania. Experiments in mice and ferrets found that the mRNA flu vaccine induced high levels of antibodies that were stable for several months and protected against the virus.
Although results from animal tests are promising, clinical trials are needed to see if the vaccine protects humans in the same way without causing troublesome side effects. The vaccine raises questions for regulators about whether to approve a shot that could protect against viruses with pandemic potential but which have yet to emerge.
“This vaccine has so far only been tested in animals and it will be important to investigate its safety and efficacy in humans,” said Dr Andrew Freedman, Reader in Infectious Diseases at Cardiff University. “It appears to be a very promising approach to the goal of producing a universal influenza vaccine, as well as vaccines that protect against multiple members of other viral families such as rhino- and coronaviruses.”
Adolfo García-Sastre, director of the Institute for Global Health and Emerging Pathogens at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said current flu vaccines do not protect against influenza viruses with pandemic potential. “This vaccine, if it works well in humans, would achieve that.”
“The studies are preclinical, on experimental models,” he added. “They are very promising and, although they suggest protective capacity against all subtypes of the influenza virus, we cannot be sure until clinical trials in volunteers are completed.”
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