This year’s flu season has broken records in terms of hospitalizations and deaths across North America, which has scientists circling back to the possibility of a universal flu vaccine.
A universal flu vaccine would protect recipients from a wider range of strains for a longer period of time, with the eventual goal of being administered just once in a person’s lifetime.
“What we’re currently doing with the influenza vaccine is based on old technology. It requires that the vaccine be reformulated every year. What we would like is to have a vaccine that provides more durable protection over a longer period of time,” Dr. Danuta Skowronski with the BC Centre for Disease Control said.
“The universal vaccine is sort of the holy grail of the influenza world.”
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According to American officials, the influenza virus is killing up to 4,000 Americans every week. As of Feb. 5, data from Health Canada states that over 3,000 hospitalizations, 285 intensive care unit admissions and 130 deaths had been reported in Canada.
The World Health Organization predicts that influenza causes between 300,000 to 500,000 deaths annually.
A big factor in this year’s aggressive flu season has been the low effectiveness of the flu vaccines in both Canada and the United States.
According to Skowronski, this year’s vaccine targeted the same strain of the virus as last year – the H3N2 subtype. While vaccine effectiveness in Canada last year was low, hovering between 30 and 40 per cent, the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine dropped even further to approximately 10 per cent.
“The H3N2 subtype is unfortunately associated with the greatest disease burden. In other words, when we have epidemics due to that subtype we see more hospitalizations, more deaths and an overall more severe epidemic,” said Skowronski.
“And that’s certainly playing out now in the United States where about 80 per cent of their epidemic strains are that H3N2 virus.”
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Skowronski explained that the flu vaccine isn’t like other vaccines, in that the flu virus mutates so quickly that a new vaccine must be developed and distributed every year. Even then, it’s possible to miss the mark on exactly which strains will prove the most active during the flu season. It’s for this reason that health officials should rethink the flu vaccine, Skowronski said.
“This vaccine is not like all of our other consistently excellent vaccines. This is the only vaccine that has to be reformulated, a new vaccine produced every year to keep pace with a rapidly evolving virus. So, this vaccine, I think we need to distinguish from our other vaccines,” said Skowronski.
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Studies suggest that one of the most promising routes to achieve a universal vaccine is to create a vaccine that targets the “stalk” of the protein that covers the flu virus.
A study by University of Rochester Medical Center in conjunction with researchers around the world noted that the stalk too can change, though this strategy would provide protection for a longer period of time.
“The good news is that it’s much more difficult to drive mutations in the stalk, but it’s not impossible,” David J. Topham, professor in the department of Microbiology and Immunology at URMC, said in a statement.
Skowronski explains that while a one-time flu vaccine is a long way away, scientists are getting closer to developing a vaccine that would be administered every few years instead of each year, that covered more strains of the virus.
“To some people, a universal vaccine truly means universal. Any type or subtype of influenza across the lifetime. That is still a long way away. On the shorter time span, we may be able to get better cross-protective vaccines. And people are working on that, targeting different components of the virus than we are historically used to targeting,” she said.
A second study released in January has a more hopeful outlook on the timeline for a universal flu vaccine. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles created a vaccine with the goal of boosting the immune system’s ability to combat several viral strains.
While this likely won’t become a universal vaccine anytime soon, the vaccine was able to protect against aggressive strains such as H1N1 and H3N2 subtypes simultaneously.
To eventually achieve universal protection, however, Skowronski emphasizes that countries need to prioritize research on the issue.
Governments and private companies are starting to recognize this, said Dr. Matthew Millar, assistant professor, Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University, to Global News.
“A few years ago, there were a lot of universal flu vaccine strategies in the pre-clinical stage, that were looking very promising. A few of these have advanced to clinical trials,” said Millar.
With clinical trials will underway, Millar said that a universal flu vaccine is “a very feasible thing that’s very likely to happen over the next 10 years.”
He said that several parties, including the U.S. National Institute of Health, global non-profits such as PATH and pharmaceutical companies are currently funding clinical trials for universal flu vaccines.
“The fact that these vaccines are moving forward in clinical trials is very promising,” he said.
“A lot of groups around the world are working on this.”