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  • Influenza is a virus that affects millions of people in the United States each year.
  • Each year between 40 and 50 percent of adults get their influenza vaccine, according to the CDC.
  • Scientists are now studying a vaccine in a phase 1 trial that could potentially protect against all flu strains.

A new form of the flu vaccine is currently under trial to help protect against all forms of influenza. The National Institutes of Health recently announced it is beginning its phase one trial for a universal flu vaccine.

Currently, the yearly seasonal flu shot only covers certain strains of the virus. However, scientists are now studying a vaccine that could protect against all flu strains.

While this is not the first attempt at creating this type of vaccine, this experimental vaccine has shown success in animal models and, for the first time, is being tested in humans.

Influenza is a virus that affects millions of people in the United States each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it estimates that between 2019 and 2020, 35 million people had symptomatic influenza. This resulted in over 380,000 hospitalizations and about 20,000 deaths.

Protection against influenza not only requires individuals to practice safe and healthy measures like handwashing, distancing from sick individuals, and wearing a mask when available but also the influenza vaccine. Each year between 40 and 50 percent of adults get their influenza vaccine, according to the CDC.

“​We know that the influenza virus has a great capacity to change and that’s the main reason why we have to have an update to the ​​influenza vaccine each year,” says Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee.

The current trial is in the Phase 1 stage, with about 100 individuals getting the experimental vaccine.

“The current flu vaccines only cover the strains that are actually in the vaccine, 4 strains currently,” said Dr. Paul Goepfert, Director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Some years the available vaccine is highly effective in defending against the flu, and in other years the virus has changed significantly enough that it evades protection.

According to the trial data, up to 100 individuals between 18 and 55 years old who do not smoke and have not yet received the currently available influenza vaccine are enrolled.

Participants do not know if they are receiving which one of the three available inoculations. One group will receive the experimental vaccine intramuscularly in their arm and a placebo of saline intranasally or in their nose. Another group will receive a saline placebo in their arm and the vaccine intranasally. The final group will receive a placebo through both methods.

Over the next 7 months, all participants will have their symptoms monitored, their temperature checked, and additional testing to determine the immune response to the vaccine.

Influenza spreads by the respiratory pathway from one individual to another. The currently available influenza vaccine does not produce a significant immune response in the mucus-filled regions of our lungs, throat, and nose, which are the most critical areas for fighting respiratory viruses like influenza.

“By trialing this universal vaccine in the nasal passageways as well as in the traditional method through the arm, scientists will be able to decipher the effective nature of the vaccine through both methods,” Schaffner told Healthline.

Currently, the influenza vaccine is developed months in advance before the actual influenza season. Scientists use multiple data points to accurately predict which strains of influenza are most likely to affect the country, including looking at strains common in the southern hemisphere during their winter.

Scientists estimate which flu strains made people sick in the last season and which are likely to spread widely in the upcoming season. They then make the necessary changes they need to make to the vaccine to target those strains. But this is all done months in advance of the flu season.

It currently takes up to 6 months to create large enough quantities of the vaccine.

However, with a universal vaccine, scientists will be able to protect against all strains of influenza, creating what some scientists call the holy grail of vaccines.

Goepfert agrees that this trial can show promise for a successful vaccine in the future it is not known if a yearly dose will be needed.

“Individuals are less likely to need early shots, but it depends on how many strains are covered and how long the immune response lasts,” he tells Healthline.

This current study shows an opportunity for the success of the vaccine, but several other scientists have attempted to create a universal influenza vaccine but have not been successful.

“If this vaccine is successful, it’s going to be a number of years before we see it available,” says Schaffner.

​“The first few steps have been completed successfully in the laboratory and on animals and have shown to be promising, so over the next several months the phase one study will be completed, and if successful, it will go on to bigger and more inclusive phases in the future, but this will take time.”