Universal Flu Vaccine Could Fight Pandemics For Up To Twenty Years

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A universal flu vaccine – a vaccine that could last decades and offer protection against many different flu virus strains--is being developed. EarthSky spoke with Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Anthony Fauci: When you talk about a universal flu vaccine, you’re talking about a vaccine that, when you give it to a person, ideally once or twice or maybe every several years, would induce a response that would protect that person against all of the influenzas, even the ones that change slightly from year to year, or even the ones that dramatically and rarely change very, very much, namely a pandemic.

Dr. Fauci said vaccines used today target a part of the flu virus that changes from year to year, enough to require a different vaccine every year.

What scientists do now is to, by the latest molecular technique, create a molecule that exposes or shows to the body’s immune system that part of the virus that really doesn’t change from year to year, or from strain to strain.

Human trials have started for the universal flu vaccine, which might be available within the next ten years. Fauci said it could help protect against a future pandemic flu like H1N1.

That’s one of the precise reasons that we are so intent on developing a universal influenza vaccine – to protect against an influenza virus that changes dramatically, dramatically enough so that there’s no residual protection in the population.

Dr. Fauci said that the reason doctors recommend that people get an updated vaccine every year is that the flu almost always changes a bit.

Each year, the flu virus circulates on a very predictable seasonal basis. Every winter season, flu circulates, and it usually changes just a little bit from year to year. We call that a seasonal drift. And by change, we mean it’s a little bit different from the previous year. So the vaccine that you got in the previous year will partially, though not completely, protect you from getting infected.

And, he said, there are also the rare cases, as happened last year, where there isn’t just a seasonal small change, a drift – there’s a major change, a shift.

And that major change leads to the potential of a pandemic, in the same way that in 2009 and early 2010 we saw the pandemic flu that is called the swine flu, which was a virus that virtually no one, except for older people, had ever experienced in the past. So they were particularly susceptible to getting infected.

Experts say that a return of a pandemic flu like that of H1N1 in 2009 or of Spanish Flu of 1918 is inevitable.

So a truly successful influenza universal vaccine will in fact hopefully protect you not only against seasonal changes, but against dramatic changes. A successful universal flu vaccine will have major implications in protecting the population against the emergence of a pandemic flu, similar to what we saw in 2009 with the emergence of the swine flu.

Written by Earthsky.org

[Image by James Gathany]

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