The Dream of a Universal Flu Vaccine

Universal flu vaccine would prevent worldwide outbreaks

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) It's the medical breakthrough that disease experts have long dreamed about: A “universal” flu vaccine that would last for years and protect against all strains of flu virus.

A new study out of Princeton University has shown that such a vaccine would effectively step up the yearly fight against flu, and effectively protect against seasonal strains as well as dangerous influenza pandemics.

At the same time, research around the world is bringing a universal vaccine closer to reality.

"Ask your doctor about flu shots."

Nimalan Arinaminpathy, a postdoctoral research associate in Princeton's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology was the lead author of the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

While many people consider flu little more than a seasonal annoyance, the virus can be a killer for those who are already sick with a serious illness, and for thousands of people who don't have access to health care. Pandemic strains, such as avian flu and the H1N1 virus, can spread quickly and cause worldwide panic.

Flu has managed to resist long-lasting human immunization, unlike measles or smallpox. The virus escapes immunity by evolving quickly into new varieties of flu.

Currently, the seasonal flu vaccine targets the three strains of the virus that are predicted to be most common. Most vaccination programs focus on immunizing high-risk groups like the elderly, rather than entire populations.

Effective vaccines work through what's called “herd immunity.” When enough people have been vaccinated, the virus has a hard time finding good targets and it slowly dies out across entire regions.

That's the ideal for fighting flu. The Princeton team created a computation model that confirmed, for the first time, that a universal flu vaccine could achieve widespread protection against flu.

The vaccine would prevent pandemic flu, and stop seasonal flu from evolving.

Many researchers are working on creating a universal flu vaccine. The new class of vaccine would focus on new targets in the virus itself.

The current vaccine targets proteins on the surface of the virus, which change as it evolves. Researchers are now looking inside the virus, and focusing on the commonalities between every strain.

In 2010, the National Institutes of Health estimated that a universal flu vaccine was five years away, but the timeline is still uncertain.

The paper was published in late February 2012.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 29, 2012
Last Updated:
October 8, 2012