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Researchers are being given $130 million to develop a universal flu vaccine. Getty Images
  • Scientists are being given $130 million to come up with a universal flu shot.
  • It’s estimated it’ll take 7 years to develop the universal vaccine.
  • A universal vaccine would attack the parts of the flu virus that don’t change from year to year.

An optimist might look at the efforts to develop a universal flu vaccine and say, “That’s great news, a flu shot that can last for years!”

A pessimist might say, “It’s going to take how long?”

Indeed, that question won’t be answered for a while.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has announced it’s giving a coalition of 15 universities and research organizations up to $130 million over 7 years to develop a universal flu inoculation.

“It would be a very big deal,” said Rafi Ahmed, PhD, the director of the Emory University Vaccine Center and one of the co-principal investigators of the project. “If we succeed, then you don’t have to get the vaccine every year. It’ll be a better vaccine.”

The 2017 to 2018 flu season was the worst in a decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Although the 2018 to 2019 season was considered moderate in severity, it broke records for longevity, with flu activity remaining elevated for 21 weeks.

And that was with a record-setting 169 million doses of vaccine distributed.

The CDC reported influenza caused up to 57,300 deaths and sickened up to 41 million people during the past flu season. The typical flu season starts as early as October and can run until May.

Unlike other vaccines, a flu shot is necessary every year because of the flu’s ability to rapidly mutate.

Scientists plot a vaccine’s course early each year based on the three or four strains they believe most likely to hit.

“It’s not a perfect mechanism by any means,” Ahmed told Healthline. “The effectiveness varies. Some years it’s 70 percent (effective) or more. Then there are years it’s 20 or 30. Usually it’s between 50 and 70 percent.”

Ahmed says designing a universal vaccine for a virus that changes annually will be tricky. Researchers will focus on the aspects of the virus that are constant from year to year, which he called “regions X and Y.”

“If you look at the virus, there are parts that don’t change, so you target the immune response to what parts remain the same. It’s imprecise,” he said. “Humans can make antibodies for the regions that don’t change.”

The parts that do change may cause pandemics, which can be influenced by avian or swine strains.

Stacey Knobler, the director of influenza vaccine innovation at the nonprofit Sabin Vaccine Institute, says new research and longer-lasting vaccinations could head off pandemics, especially in countries lacking healthcare resources.

“Currently, the world’s defenses against a pandemic strain are highly constrained. A viral strain against which hundreds of millions around the world would have no immunity, and recent estimates from the White House Council of Economic Advisors suggest could cost the U.S. alone over $3 trillion in economic damage.

“A broadly cross-protective influenza vaccine that required something less than annual administration would be game-changing for both pandemic preparedness and our annual battles,” Knobler told Healthline.

Ahmed says serious research into a universal vaccine ramped up after the 2009 to 2010 worldwide pandemic, which some estimates say killed half a million people.

Longer-lasting protection could mean more planet-wide access.

“To be universal, it would need to be at least as equally effective as the seasonal flu vaccine is now,” Dr. Caesar Djavaherian, a San Francisco Bay Area physician and co-founder of provider Carbon Health, told Healthline. “Of course, the goal would be to make it 100 percent effective, like many other vaccines.”

There are many unknown variables in the coming research, including whether different “universal” vaccines would be necessary for different population segments.

“Subtype vaccines might still be useful to boost certain populations, such as children, seniors, and others with compromised immune systems against particularly lethal strains,” Dr. Gerald W. Fischer, chairman and CEO of Longhorn Vaccines and Diagnostics, told Healthline.

Djavaherian says another factor might be a universal vaccine’s effect on the evolution of the virus itself.

“We would have to see. Some viruses, like influenza, are well equipped to continually mutate. Humans and viruses adapt to survive, but we use different techniques,” he said.

Which could be a factor in some researchers’ estimates that a universal vaccine would actually last 5 to 10 years before a booster would be necessary.

The hope is the longer the research goes, the longer the initial vaccines would last.

“I’ve been at this for a while, and it’s quite frustrating to me,” Dr. Frank Rhame, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with Allina Health in Minneapolis, told Healthline.

“It’s been obvious for years that the current application is not optimal. But they’re putting a lot of money into places that are good at this. I don’t doubt that we’ll get there. But it takes time,” he said.

Research is already underway at the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Researchers are testing early versions of the vaccine on adults between the ages of 18 and 70, who will remain under observation for 12 to 15 months.

The current plan of attack is to go after a different region of the small tubes attached to the flu virus, known as the hemagglutinin (HA) protein. It comprises a head and neck portion.

Until now, vaccines have gone after the head, which triggers a human immune system to produce antibodies just for that area. But the virus mutates frequently and, when it does, the immune system won’t recognize the HA.

New research targets the stalk, Rhame says, which rarely changes from year to year and between strains.

“You have to find that piece,” Rhame said. “The stalk doesn’t change that much. The question is finding a piece of one of the proteins where the changes aren’t occurring. That’s where we have to attack it.”

And now the government has recommitted to that war on flu. And while 7 years may sound like a long time, Djavaherian says it’s not when considering what’s involved.

“For drug development, which includes inventing and testing, this seems like a short period of time,” he said. “We would be lucky to have that.”