Each year, thousands of people are infected with influenza during the flu season in the United States, and most years, hundreds die
either from the flu itself or flu-associated illnesses such as pneumonia.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not track adult flu deaths nationally, the National Center for Health Statistics and the 122 Cities Mortality Reporting System process death certificate data to rank certain weeks of the year as “elevated” for flu-related deaths and also as above or below the “epidemic threshold.”
In the 2015-2016 flu season, there were a total of seven weeks in January and February that were deemed above the epidemic threshold. This could be due, in part, to relatively low levels of vaccination on a national level, with only about half of the US population electing to receive a flu vaccine
on any given year, Ted M. Ross, PhD, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Infectious Disease and director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, told Contagion®
. “If we could get to the point where we could get maybe 90% of the population protected, we would have so many more people protected against cocirculating strains,” he said.
Dr. Ross is not just hoping for this outcome, either. His research team is actively working to resolve the myriad of negative issues that accompany a vaccine that must be administered and adjusted annually. “We are still doing the flu vaccine as we did in the 1950s,” he observed, adding that next year’s flu season, 2018, will be the hundred-year anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed
an estimated 20 to 40 million people worldwide. “You always have the potential for another pandemic,” he said, adding, “It’s just a matter of when.”
Dr. Ross and his team are licensed with Sanofi Pasteur and are working to create a flu vaccine that would last multiple years and that would protect not only against the most dominant flu strains in any given year, but that will also protect an individual from viral subtypes. “Subtypes are like suits in playing cards,” Dr. Ross explained. “You have different suits, but there are also different cards—Jack, Queen, 10, etc.—so that one single card cannot represent the entire suit. Our team has included little parts of all the other cards onto one ‘playing card’ [in the experimental vaccine] so that the composite molecule in our vaccine represents all different variants. Now, we make antibodies against all variants that we can test against.” In order to create this “composite playing card” vaccine, Dr. Ross and his team isolated viral subtypes for the flu all the way back to 1918. “We ultimately want a playing deck of all these versions of the flu,” he explained.
Unlike other research teams that focus on “universal” flu vaccines that could be administered once, like a MMR immunization, Dr. Ross’s team believes that the key to successfully implementing a “permanent” flu shot is to create one that needs to be repeated every three to five years. “That would be a great improvement over today because it would allow year-round production and make more people immune to a broader number of strains,” he said, noting that having to reformulate the vaccine less frequently would mean that there would be a significant decline in the number of “mismatches” during any given flu season; this is because the vaccine formula would not have to be predicted and go into manufacturing months before the actual flu season begins.
“A universal program, even if it actually is a three-to-five-year program, will allow for vaccination all year round no matter the season,” Dr. Ross explained, adding that in addition to reducing the likelihood of vaccine shortages, this type of longer-lasting vaccine “should help reduce infections and hospitalizations because instead of just recognizing the dominant strain, it will pick up [and protect from] other strains as well. Even if the dominant strain accounts for 50 percent [of the infections] in a given season, that leaves half of all strains not currently picked up.”
Dr. Ross noted that even though his team is experiencing some success in animal testing studies, as an article
published in the Journal of Virology
in May 2016 attests, “It takes multiple rounds, [and] multiple phases before you get something to market.” He added that the group is in a licensing agreement with Sanofi Pasteur, the largest flu vaccine manufacturer in the world. “We hope to go to clinical trials in the near future,” he added.
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