Could we ever develop a universal flu vaccine? Congress has pledged $1 billion to find one in 5 years – but health directors receiving that money say it’s not possible
- Congress pledged $1 billion to research into universal flu vaccine in March 2018
- Health directors say the funds are necessary but the goal is not exactly possible
- The US is spending more and more on flu as the population ages and flu hits the country harder
- Last year the flu killed 80,000 Americans – more than the entire Vietnam war
The US government has pledged $1 billion towards finding a universal flu vaccine in five years.
Health officials are happy to receive the funds – though they say the goal is impossible.
‘The aspirational goal, that I’m even concerned is attainable, is to cover everything,’ Dr Anthony Fauci, head of infectious disease at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told a conference on Saturday.
‘You could have a relatively universal vaccine,’ he said. But right now, their studies are nothing more than ‘intellectually promising.’
‘Whether they will turn into being a home run or a base hit, we don’t know yet.’
There are multiple strains of flu, and within them multiple types which keep mutating. And they all affect each person differently. That makes a universal flu shot unlikely
Gary Nabel, chief scientific officer at Sanofi, which produces the flu vaccine, agreed.
‘I doubt we will see progress within five years. Probably progress incremental progress,’ he said.
‘We have a moving target. The challenge is, with all of the genetic diversity and structural diversity, how do we set our sights on the critical targets where the virus can’t escape.’
There has been mounting pressure to get past theory in recent years.
With a rapidly aging population, flu is hitting the US harder and harder.
On average, taxpayers spend $10.4 billion in direct medical costs on the flu every year, and $87 billion in total economic burden.
To combat that, the government has been pouring more and more money into research and development to create a more effective flu vaccine.
Last year, government spent $100 million on research – and drugmakers spent another $150 million.
And last spring, Congress pledged $1 billion to researchers chasing the goal of a universal flu vaccine over the next five years.
‘This historic investment in developing a universal flu vaccine is the beginning of the end of this viral scourge,’ said Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass) when he tabled the Flu Vaccine Act last March.
Dr Fauci is happy about the funds.
But he is unsure a universal flu vaccine is actually possible, and certainly not by 2023.
There are multiple strains of flu, and within them multiple types which keep mutating.
The flu is primarily an avian virus, which starts in birds and passes to humans. Every year, as birds migrate, the virus is exposed to all manner of environments and pathogens that make it stronger and more dynamic.
Each season, the ‘stem’ of virus barely changes, but every year the ‘head’ of the virus mutates wildly.
He believes it could be possible to develop a few ‘relatively universal’ vaccines that target different strains of flu.
Dr Nancy Messonnier, head of immunization and infectious diseases at the CDC, said it is very likely we may develop different vaccines for different age groups. Already, we have a vaccine that is shown to work best for over-50s, and others which works best in over-65s.
‘It’s not one magic bullet there may be a series of vaccines,’ Dr Messonnier said.
She agreed that the flu will take more than a few years to crack.
‘But even a small increase in the effectiveness of the vaccine will save countless lives,’ she said.