A long-lasting, universal flu vaccine has been developed to combat the most deadly strain of the virus that is devastating the US this season, according to new research.
Researchers at Georgia State University said that this universal vaccine will only need to be administered once or twice in a person’s life to permanently protect against the influenza A virus.
Current seasonal flu shots need to be updated each year to match the virus that scientists predict will infect people, resulting in strains offering less protection – such as this year’s vaccine that is only 34 percent effective against the aggressive H3N2 strain.
This groundbreaking development could eliminate the need for seasonal flu vaccines altogether, protecting more people against the strain of the virus that has already killed 37 children and left thousands hospitalized in the US this season.
Researchers from Georgia State University said that they have developed a universal flu vaccine to combat every strain of the A virus
The yearly flu shot targets protein ‘heads’ that attack the body and make people feel sick.
However, this becomes problematic when the protein heads mutate into different strains after scientists make the annual vaccine hyper-focused on killing one particular strain of the flu
Researchers used a new approach by using double-layered protein nanoparticles to target the flu virus and produce a longer lasting immunity to the flu.
‘We’re trying to develop a new vaccine approach that eliminates the need for vaccination every year,’ said Dr Boazhong Wang, an associate professor at Georgia State.
‘You wouldn’t need to change the vaccine type every year because it’s universal and can protect against any influenza virus,’ they added.
To test the effectiveness of the nanoparticle vaccine, the researchers immunized mice twice with the new flu shot.
Then, the mice were exposed to several A viruses: H1N1, H3N2, H5N1 and H7N9.
The findings published in the journal Nature Communications showed that immunization provided universal, complete protection against lethal virus exposure and dramatically reduced the amount of virus in the lungs.
‘Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent deaths from influenza virus, but the virus changes very fast and you have to receive a new vaccination each year,’ said Dr. Bao-Zhong Wang, associate professor in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State.
This year’s H3N2 virus is notoriously aggressive and the vaccine only offers 34 percent protection against it.
WHAT ARE THE FLU STRAINS HITTING THE US THIS YEAR?
There are many different strains of flu circulating around the world, but four main types are being seen, or are set to emerge, in America this winter.
The vaccine is 34 percent effective against the H3N2 strain, however it will offer more protection from the new strains, H1N1 and B viruses, emerging in the next few weeks.
H3N2 – Dubbed ‘Aussie flu’ after it struck Australia hard last winter, this strain is more likely to affect the elderly, who do not respond well to the current vaccine. This is one of the most common strains seen so far this winter.
H1N1 – This strain – known as ‘swine flu’ – is generally more likely to hit children, who respond well to vaccination. This has been seen nearly as often as H3N2 so far this year. In the past it was only commonly caught from pigs, but that changed in 2009 when it started spreading rapidly among humans in a major global pandemic.
B / Yamagata – This is known as ‘Japanese flu’. Only people who received the ‘four strain’ vaccine – which is being slowly rolled out after it was introduced for the first time this winter – are protected against the Yamagata strain. Those who received the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine are not protected.
B / Victoria – This strain is vaccinated against in the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine, but has hardly appeared so far this winter, with just four confirmed cases.
Though the CDC stresses the importance of getting the flu shot, research shows that the refusal rate is climbing.
Even if the vaccine is not 100 percent effective it is designed to protect the secondary strains, H1N1 and B viruses, which are now beginning to emerge.
‘There’s still a long way to go, there’s at least 11 to 13 more weeks of flu to go, there are strains still to show up,’ Dr Daniel Jernigan, director of the Influenza Division at the CDC, said.
‘B viruses show up later in the season, and we are also seeing H1N1 show up in states that have already had H3 activity. It’s therefore a good reason to get vaccinated if you haven’t,’ he added.
Infectious disease experts say that a vaccine may never be able to fully protect against the flu, especially the H3N2 strain.
Though it is not exactly known why, part of it could have to do with human’s first exposure to it.
The H3N2 first hit the US exactly 50 years ago. As it happens, the worst-affected Americans are over 50 years old.
According to a study published by Harvard in 2015, our flu immunity is shaped by our first flu exposure. That strain of flu ‘imprints’ itself on the immune system.
The CDC reported today that seven more children were killed by the flu this week, bringing the rate up to 37.
However officials believe that number is a wild underestimate.
Dr Jernigan said Friday that he believes the actual pediatric death toll could be closer to 80, and predicts it will climb to around 150 by the end of March.
Hospitalizations have reached 41.9 per 100,000 this week.
Schools in at least 11 states are closing to disinfect buildings and quarantine children at home and hospitalizations rates are soaring.
This year’s outbreak is on track to becoming one of the worst flu seasons in recent history due to a deadly strain that has become widespread in 49 states, excluding Hawaii.
The rate of people with influenza-like illness (ILI) has rocketed past the rate of every other year except the unusual November pandemic of 2009 – even eclipsing the deadly 2014/15 season.