A universal flu vaccine: Here’s what you need to know

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Joe Myers, Writer, Formative Content

  • Researchers in the US have made progress on a ‘universal’ influenza vaccine.
  • Current flu vaccines are ‘seasonal’, meaning they only offer protection against recently circulating strains.
  • The researchers hope a universal vaccine could help reduce death and severe illness during any future flu pandemics.
  • The development and distribution of vaccines involves partners across the globe.

Scientists in November announced a breakthrough in work towards developing a ‘universal’ flu vaccine. Using the same messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology that’s been used in several COVID-19 vaccines, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were able to develop a vaccine against all the 20 known influenza A and B virus subtypes.

In initial tests, the experimental vaccine provided broad protection against strains that could otherwise be lethal. The researchers behind the work say it could one day help as a general preventative measure against future flu pandemics.

“The idea here is to have a vaccine that will give people a baseline level of immune memory to diverse flu strains, so that there will be far less disease and death when the next flu pandemic occurs,” Dr Scott Hensley, the senior author of the study, and a professor of microbiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, told Penn Medicine News.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about access to vaccines?

In 2000, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance was launched at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, with an initial pledge of $750 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The aim of Gavi is to make vaccines more accessible and affordable for all – wherever people live in the world.

Along with saving an estimated 10 million lives worldwide in less than 20 years,through the vaccination of nearly 700 million children, – Gavi has most recently ensured a life-saving vaccine for Ebola.

At Davos 2016, we announced Gavi’s partnership with Merck to make the life-saving Ebola vaccine a reality.

The Ebola vaccine is the result of years of energy and commitment from Merck; the generosity of Canada’s federal government; leadership by WHO; strong support to test the vaccine from both NGOs such as MSF and the countries affected by the West Africa outbreak; and the rapid response and dedication of the DRC Minister of Health. Without these efforts, it is unlikely this vaccine would be available for several years, if at all.

Read more about the Vaccine Alliance, and how you can contribute to the improvement of access to vaccines globally – in our Impact Story.

Why a universal flu vaccine matters

Advances in medicine, as well as sanitation and indeed existing vaccination programmes, have helped reduce the number of people who die from flu, but it still remains a major global killer. Hundreds of thousands of people die from seasonal influenza every year, explains Our World in Data.

The risk of death increases significantly with age, while infants are also more at risk.

But of particular concern to the researchers behind this mRNA flu vaccine is reducing the impact of pandemic strains of influenza. Perhaps the best-known flu pandemic was the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic from 1918-1920, but as the following chart from Our World in Data shows, it’s been far from the only one.

But, current flu vaccines are ‘seasonal’, meaning they only offer protection against recently circulating strains and don’t offer protection against any new strains that would cause a pandemic.

How does the new vaccine work?

The University of Pennsylvania researchers behind the vaccine used immunogens, a type of antigen that stimulates responses from the immune system, from all the known influenza subtypes.

It’s not expected to provide so-called sterilizing immunity, which completely prevents infection, but rather enables the body to build its immune system’s memory, allowing it to recall what it knows and adapt quickly to new pandemic strains.

The key to making the new vaccine successful thus far has been the mRNA technology.

“For a conventional vaccine, immunizing against all these subtypes would be a major challenge, but with mRNA technology, it’s relatively easy,” Hensley said.

The vaccine development is still in its early stages though, so it remains to be seen when we might all be getting our universal vaccine.

Getting everyone access to vaccines

The work of researchers like those at Penn, but also organizations like CEPI, is vital in developing vaccines, like a universal flu jab or the COVID-19 vaccines, and then ensuring their equitable distribution.

CEPI – the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations – is a global partnership between multiple sectors to accelerate the development of vaccines and other measures to tackle epidemic and pandemic threats. It was launched at Davos in 2017 and works across the process from discovery and development to delivery and last-mile support.

And like CEPI, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance was also launched at Davos – this time in 2000. It has gone on to immunize millions of children – some 888 million from 2000 to 2020, in fact, preventing millions of potential deaths, building on the work of researchers like those at Penn, and then getting vaccines into those who need it.

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