A universal flu vaccine could become a reality

One of the most common viruses in the world passes annually through the US with no fanfare, rarely producing shocking headlines or news footage of health specialists wearing hazmat suits.

October 17, 2017 – ScienceNews

While it does not cause any panic when an affected person coughs or seems feverish, before next spring this germ will have infected millions of individuals. And still, it is commonly referred to as just the flu.

The influenza virus seems so normal to most Americans that only about half of us will heed those “time for your flu shot” banners that pop up at pharmacies and worksites every autumn.

Those annual shots remain the best means of protection, but they must be manufactured months before flu season starts, based on a best educated guess of what strains of the virus will be circulating. That means even in a successful year, vaccine performance may not be impressive.

During the 2015–2016 season, only about half of those immunized were protected, according to a study in the Aug. 10 New England Journal of Medicine. Some years’ vaccines are duds: For the 2014–2015 season, the vaccine protected only 19 percent of people who received it, based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Scientists have long worked to develop a flu shot that works better and lasts longer. But, unlike the very stable measles virus, influenza is a moving target. While only a few strains of flu virus circulate worldwide in a typical year, dozens more may exist. Each one is highly likely to mutate from year to year, with just enough shape-shifting to be unrecognizable to the body’s defenses.

Now, after years of searching, scientists believe they have better strategies to attack the parts of the virus that stay the same from year to year, offering the hope of protection across multiple seasons.

The vaccines being developed in laboratories around the world “offer more promise than we’ve ever had,” says Walter Orenstein, associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center in Atlanta. And there are new creative approaches: One research group is trying to make a kind of super shot by anticipating every possible mutation a circulating virus might undergo.

“I’m optimistic we are going to get to a vaccine,” says Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID, in Bethesda, Md. Then, you may need to heed those “time for your flu shot” messages only once.

A universal flu vaccine could become a reality

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