The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Universal flu vaccine is no longer science fiction. Scientists report major step in development.

A sign lets customers know they can get a flu shot in a Walgreen store in Indianapolis. U.S. health officials warned in late 2014 that the flu vaccine may not be very effective and may lead to more serious illnesses and deaths. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

Whenever Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, speaks about pressing medical needs he often brings up the universal flu vaccine. One of the costliest public health scourges, flu kills an estimated 23,000 to 36,000 people a year in the United States and causes tens of billions in lost productivity, hospitalizations and other burdens to the economy.

Sometimes the impact is of pandemic proportions, such as the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak that is said to have claimed 20 million lives.

Until recently, the idea of a one-stop shot that could protect against all flu strains for decades or even a lifetime was considered pure fantasy. But this week two independent teams of scientists reported in Nature Medicine and Science that we may be closer to such a vaccine than many think.

Right now, coming up with the three or four strains in Americans' annual flu shots is a guessing game. Several months before the flu season begins, scientists, public health officials and representatives from big pharma meet to try to determine the best formulation by looking at the geography of the strains, the timing of outbreaks and what happened in previous years.

Sometimes they're lucky and flu season is mild as a result of their work. Other times, like last year, their best guesses are totally off and the flu season is a disaster.

Vaccine development today works by targeting part of a flu virus that is constantly mutating, leading to the mad scramble each year to predict what will happen next. In the new studies scientists were able to use a different part of the virus -- a protein on the surface of the virus known as the stem of haemagglutinin -- to provoke an immune response.

In one study, Hadi Yassine of the Vaccine Research Center at NIH tested the vaccines on mice and ferrets and found that most of the animals were protected when they exposed them to the H5N1 bird flu that has an extremely high mortality rate in humans.

The second study, which was done at the Crucell Vaccine Institute in the Netherlands, took a similar approach in creating a stem vaccine, and it was found to be effective in mice.

Virologist John Oxford who works at University of London told the BBC that the studies were "a leap forward compared to anything done recently."

"Ultimately," he said, outlining the best case scenario for the worst case scenario, "the hope is to get a vaccine that will cover a pandemic virus."

The Financial Times reported that Sarah Gilbert, a vaccine expert at the University of Oxford, cautioned that while the studies are "an exciting development" it may still take several years of research to see how well they work in humans.

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