A universal flu vaccine that protects against all strains of the virus could be available within the next two years, a leading scientist says.
An experimental vaccine based on the same mRNA technology used in the highly successful Covid jabs was found to protect mice and ferrets against severe flu, paving the way for clinical trials in humans.
Professor John Oxford, a neurologist at Queen Mary University of London who was not involved in the work, said the vaccine developed at the University of Pennsylvania would be ready for use after next winter.
“I can’t stress enough what a breakthrough this paper is,” Oxford told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme. “The potential is huge and I think sometimes we underestimate these big respiratory viruses.”
Researchers have been working on universal flu vaccines for more than a decade, but the latest breakthrough, Published in ScienceIt is considered a major step toward a jab that could help protect humans from devastating flu infections.
Seasonal flu vaccines, which protect against four strains of the virus, are updated each year to ensure they are the most relevant to the flu viruses in circulation. The new vaccine is designed to prime the immune system against all 20 subtypes of influenza A and B.
In 2009, a virus spread from pigs to humans spread across the world. Although that outbreak was far less dangerous than health officials had feared, the flu epidemic of 1918 demonstrated how dangerous new strains could kill tens of millions of people.
Giving people a “baseline” level of immunity against the full range of flu strains could lead to less illness and fewer deaths when the next flu pandemic occurs, said researcher Dr. Scott Hensley of the team in Pennsylvania. In experiments in mice and ferrets, the mRNA flu vaccine induced high levels of antibodies that were persistent for months and protective against the virus.
Although the results of animal tests are promising, clinical trials are needed to see if the vaccine protects humans in the same way without causing problematic side effects. The vaccine raises the question for regulators about whether to approve a shot that could protect against potentially pandemic viruses, but that hasn’t really taken off yet.
“This vaccine has only been tested in animals to date, and it is important to investigate its safety and efficacy in humans,” said Dr Andrew Freedman, Reader in Infectious Diseases at Cardiff University. “This appears to be a very promising approach towards the goal of producing a universal flu vaccine and vaccines that protect against many members of other virus families, such as rhinoviruses and corona-viruses.”
Adolfo García-Sastre, Director of the Institute for Global Health and emerging pathogens at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said current influenza vaccines do not protect against pandemic-competent influenza viruses. “This vaccine, if it works well in people, could achieve this.”
“The studies are preliminary, in experimental models,” he added. “Although they are very promising and suggest a protective potential against all types of influenza viruses, we cannot be sure until clinical trials in volunteers are done.”
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