Infectious Disease

How shut is the world to a common flu vaccine?

February 23, 2021

2 min read

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Disclosure:
Glatt does not report any relevant financial information.

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The rapid and successful development of COVID-19 vaccines has raised hope for new and effective vaccines against other infectious diseases, including influenza.

Moderna, which was developing one of the first two COVID-19 vaccines to be approved in the US, announced in January that it was expanding its messenger RNA vaccine portfolio to develop vaccine candidates for HIV, Nipah virus, and seasonal influenza.

Scientists have long sought not only better seasonal influenza vaccines, but a universal influenza vaccine that could offer protection against all strains of the virus for more than just one season – and perhaps even a lifetime.

Aaron E. Glatt, MD, FACP, FIDSA, FSHEA
Aaron E. Glatt

Experts agree that vaccination remains the best tool for fighting influenza, even if other measures to contain influenza at the age of COVID-19 have shown they can slow transmission, protecting against seasonal influenza vaccines all in one good year, however, is only 40% to 60%.

We asked Aaron E. Glatt, MD, FACP, FIDSA, FSHEA, Chairman of Medicine, Chief Infectious Disease Physician and Epidemiologist at the Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, New York, and Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, how close is he to the world on a universal influenza vaccine and how it might look like.

It is unclear how long it will be before we have a universal influenza vaccine. Several years I guess, but that’s a guess. Inactivated influenza virus vaccines have been used for more than 70 years with no significant changes to the underlying technology. However, this year influenza disease is at an all-time low for reasons related to COVID-19. We anticipate this will change when regular masking and social distancing are a thing of the past.

Every year we gather the troops and try to vaccinate our patients, medical staff and employees against influenza. The hassle, cost, and fatigue of vaccinating / hesitation to vaccinate make this an ongoing struggle. Wouldn’t it be great if we could only vaccinate against influenza once and it offers lifelong immunity? Well, we are approaching that reality.

Several recent publications have provided new updated information on this critical issue. These articles support the advancement of vaccine candidates that target the hemagglutinin stem rather than the head of influenza viruses as part of a universal influenza virus vaccination strategy.

An interesting analogy has been put forward that explains the concept well. Think of an ice cream cone to make this easy to understand. Imagine if the cone represents the stem of the influenza virus while the egg represents a hemagglutinin that is specific for a strain of influenza. You don’t want to be exposed to the cone or ice as it means you may be infected with viruses.

Current vaccines essentially prevent influenza by trying to detect the “ice” – or various hemagglutinins – on the cone and thereby prevent / relieve the infection. However, it does not recognize other cones with different ice – i.e. other influenza viruses – and you will be attracted / infected by them. This is clearly not a very efficient system.

However, this new potential universal vaccine can detect the cone itself – regardless of what ice / hemagglutinin is on top. By recognizing the stem (“cone”) you will prevent ice cream / influenza viruses from attracting / infecting you.

If this concept really works, it would be an important paradigm shift in our approach to influenza vaccination.

Click here to read the cover story: “Amid COVID-19, US sees” abnormally low “flu activity.”

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