NEW YORK — As the world anxiously awaits the rollout of vaccines that may stop the coronavirus pandemic, researchers in New York say they’ve taken a major step in preventing the next pandemic. A team from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai are closing in on a “one-size-fits-all” universal flu vaccine after successful early trials in humans.
Their study finds the vaccine will protect people from a “wide range” of flu viruses and could prevent widespread epidemics like COVID is causing in 2020. A universal influenza vaccine could also provide people with long lasting protection against new flu strains, which kill around 650,000 people each year.
New flu viruses, which The World Health Organization (WHO) calls “a major public health concern,” crop up every year as the disease mutates. Like COVID-19, the flu has triggered global pandemics throughout history, killing millions of people during that time.
The H1N1 virus, which caused around 40 million deaths worldwide in 1918, is one of the most devastating examples of influenza. Annual vaccines get upgrades regularly to tackle three or four of the likely strains the public will face each season. Health officials considered the yearly flu shot the best weapon against the virus in our public health arsenal.
Flu shots have their flaws
Despite their effectiveness, these upgrades take at least six months and are based on predictions of what strains are likely coming. The prediction is often “out of sync” with the strains actually circulating during flu season. The Mount Sinai team says the new vaccine could give long-term protection to millions of people without the need for a new shot every year.
“An influenza virus vaccine that results in broad immunity would likely protect against any emerging influenza virus subtype or strain and would significantly enhance our pandemic preparedness, avoiding future problems with influenza pandemics as we see them now with COVID-19,” the study’s corresponding author, Professor Florian Krammer, says in a university release.
“Our chimeric hemagglutinin vaccine is a major advance over conventional vaccines which are often mismatched to the circulating strains of virus, impacting their effectiveness. In addition, revaccinating individuals annually is a huge and expensive undertaking.”
Current vaccines contain antibodies which neutralize the flu by targeting part of a surface protein called hemagglutinin (HA). Unfortunately, viruses can cheat death by mutating, which is why flu vaccines need to be upgraded often. The chimeric hemagglutinin (HA)-based vaccine, on the other hand, targets part of the protein called the stalk. This area binds the virus to the host’s cell receptors.
“Unfortunately, the virus is able to escape neutralization by mutating this part of hemagglutinin through a process known as antigenic drift,” co-author Professor Peter Palese says.
“This genetic change, or shift, in the virus results in immunity to only specific strains of the influenza virus, requiring frequent re-formulation and re-administration of seasonal vaccines. Our chimeric HA vaccine, by contrast, is directed at the proximal part of the HA protein — the stalk domain — which has been shown to broadly neutralize diverse influenza virus strains in both animal models and humans.”
Universal flu vaccine provides much longer protection
Researchers carried out a clinical trial with 65 participants in the United States to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of the new vaccine. The results reveal each participant gained protection against new influenza viruses for up to 18 months after vaccination.
“This phase of our clinical work significantly advances our understanding of the immune response in terms of its longevity and leaves us greatly encouraged about future progress for this potentially breakthrough vaccine,” Prof. Krammer adds.
Study authors believe the vaccine could tackle influenza viruses in parts of the world where regular immunization is challenging.
“The beauty part of this vaccine is that it’s not only broad, but multifunctional with stalk-specific antibodies that can neutralize many kinds of influenza viruses,” study co-author Professor Adolfo García-Sastre explains.
“This universal vaccine could be particularly beneficial to low and middle income countries that don’t have the resources or the logistics to vaccinate their populations each year against influenza.”
The findings appear in the journal Nature Medicine.
SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.