An experimental flu vaccine that targets all known strains of the flu virus could provide broad protection against infection, new research suggests.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania said that a vaccine using the same technology as Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines “dramatically” reduced signs of illness and protected against death in initial tests using mice and ferrets, indicating that researchers could be a step closer to unlocking a universal flu vaccine.
“The idea here is to have a vaccine that will give people a baseline level of immune memory to diverse flu strains, so that there will be far less disease and death when the next flu pandemic occurs,” said Scott Hensley, a professor of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, who led the study.
In the tests, the vaccine elicited high levels of antibodies in mice for all 20 strains of the flu.
While the universal flu vaccine wouldn’t eliminate seasonal flu cases, researchers say it could provide broad protection against infection and severe illness for different strains, helping prevent the next flu pandemic. The most recent flu pandemic was in 2009. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that over 60 million people got the H1N1 virus between 2009-2010.
Typically, seasonal flu vaccines target four strains of the flu that scientists identify will be the most likely to spread and cause illness in the upcoming year, though not every year’s flu vaccine has been a good match to the dominant strains circulating, meaning the vaccine is less effective at preventing infection.
The promising results from the animal tests have prompted researchers to move forward with human clinical trials. If researchers are successful in developing a universal flu vaccine that is effective in humans, the same approach could be applied to vaccines for other viruses down the line, including the coronavirus.
More than 6 million people in the United States have gotten the flu this year already, with over half of states reporting “high” or “very high” levels of flu activity, according to data from the CDC for the week ending on Nov. 19.