Scientists Design New Universal Flu Vaccines Able to Protect Against 88 Percent of Global Flu Strains

Researchers believe the vaccines will provide a longer-lasting and more effective way to fight the virus

Scientists Design New Universal Flu Vaccines Able to Protect Against 88 Percent of Global Flu Strains
Image: Morguefile
October 4, 2016

Ah, fall—the favorite season of many is finally here. The leaves turn, the temperatures finally cool down—and the flu rears its ugly head. Although flu shots can provide some protection against the virus, they are not a guarantee.

It is for that reason that scientists have been working for years to improve the vaccine; however, current methods may or may not work well when it comes to how effective a shot is. And this variation can affect public health drastically.

"Every year we have a round of flu vaccination, where we choose a recent strain of flu as the vaccine, hoping that it will protect against next year's strains. We know this method is safe, and that it works reasonably well most of the time," explains Dr. Derek Gatherer of Lancaster University. "However, sometimes it doesn't work -- as in the H3N2 vaccine failure in winter 2014-2015 -- and even when it does it is immensely expensive and labour-intensive. Also, these yearly vaccines give us no protection at all against potential future pandemic flu."

In an attempt to solve this problem, an international team of scientists has designed a new class of universal flu vaccines through the use of groundbreaking computational techniques. The new techniques enable researchers to carry out analyses of flu strains, vaccines, and the human immune system to produce what they believe is a new, longer-lasting, and more effective way to fight the flu.

Scientists from the universities of Lancaster and Aston in the U.K. and the University of Complutense in Madrid were able to design two new universal flu vaccines. The first is specific to the U.S. , and it is believed that it will cover 95 percent of the known strains in this country. The second is a universal shot expected to cover 88 percent of all global strains. The scientists are currently looking for pharmaceutical partners who can synthesize the vaccines so that a laboratory proof-of-principle test can be carried out.

These vaccines will be unique because they were produced with short flu virus fragments known as epitopes. By selecting a range of these fragments already recognized by human immune systems, say the scientists, they were able to create vaccines capable to protecting the majority of the global population.

"Epitope-based vaccines aren't new, but most reports have no experimental validation. We have turned the problem on its head and only use previously-tested epitopes. This allows us to get the best of both worlds, designing a vaccine with a very high likelihood of success," said Dr. Darren Flower of Aston University.

If it is proven that the new vaccines are effective, they could help save countless lives around the world. According to the World Health Organization, annual epidemics of the flu result in up to 500,000 deaths every year, while previous pandemics such as those in 1957 and 1968 caused the deaths of millions.