The US government is to provide up to $400 million in funding to develop a “universal” flu vaccination. The project which will run for seven years is expected to generate a vaccine that offers more widespread protection and is longer-lasting than the current seasonal flu vaccine.
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Why is a more comprehensive vaccine needed?
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has awarded the Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) a total of three research contracts in order to develop a vaccine that is more comprehensive than it currently available.
It will be a huge project lasting several years and involving scientists from over 14 different research institutions and universities. The first year of research will receive an estimated $29.6 million in order to kick start the project. This represents the largest federal multi-contract award to back one program in the history of research at Duke.
Researchers involved in the project state that ideally the vaccine they would develop would cover people against flu for a lifetime. However, more realistically the vaccine would last for a period of five-to-ten years without needing a top-up. As research continues, the aim would be to gradually extend this period of cover.
The current method of vaccination is to construct yearly flu jabs that protect against the strains that scientists predict will be the most impactful during the coming flu season. This is usually a vaccine that protects for three or four strains temporarily.
Scientists are hoping to greatly improve on this by developing a vaccine that can target multiple weaknesses across a greater variety of strains.
The DHVI is a good choice for leading this kind of project. The institution is already recognized for its success in winning funding for HIV vaccine development, leading this field since 2005, in addition to conducting important work on other infectious diseases such as Tuberculosis, Malaria, Ebola, Cytomegalovirus and the Zika flavivirus.
A “universal” flu vaccine could save lives and reduce the burden on hospitals
Statistics show that influenza has a devastating impact each year, causing 300,000 to 500,000 people worldwide to lose their lives annually. Not only does the virus result in death, but it also puts huge strains on hospitals during each flu season, as around 5 million cases of severe infection bring significant numbers of infected people into hospitals around the world.
The development of a more thorough vaccine, that could protect against more than just a few strains that are predicted to impact each year, would potentially drastically reduce deaths and also reduce the need to rely on limited hospital resources.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) advise that everyone protects themselves wit an annual flu vaccine. However, in the US, less than half of adults and less than two-thirds of children get vaccinated each year.
A future without flu?
Being able to offer a long term vaccine could lead to more people being protected against flu than currently are using the seasonal jab method. Due to the vaccine’s longevity, even if less than 100% of the population decided to get vaccinated each year, as the year accumulated, the total percentage of those covered would exceed the current figures.
Scientists estimate that the universal flu vaccination could potentially provide a defense against flu that is up to 90% effective, whereas current vaccinations are only 40 to 60% effective.
This is significant for the future of battling the flu virus, with this level of effectiveness, coupled with the longevity of the vaccination, the developments expected to come out of the project at the DHVI are predicted to dramatically reduce death rates and the reliance on hospitals due to flu infection.