Why Has 2018 Seen The Worst Flu Outbreaks Of The Last Decade, And What Does This Mean For Flu Seasons To Come?
Perfecting the Imperfect
Creating the annual flu vaccine is still, in part, a bit of a guessing game. The current shot is only 25% effective against this season's most frequently-identified strain, H3N2, because of issues like the required lead time in making a season's worth of vaccine.
Officials have to decide the makeup of the annual vaccine months ahead of the flu season, which typically results in 40%-60% effectiveness.
It's no easy feat to out-maneuver the stealthy flu virus, famous for continuously mutating.
There are hundreds of known variations, and each seasonal vaccine targets three or four versions that researchers believe will be the most common in a given year.
New Approaches to a Universal Problem
The goal of ongoing research is to create a "universal" vaccine that would work more like a measles vaccine, offering something along the lines of 90% protection for years (or even for life!) with a single inoculation.
Recent research has uncovered new and potentially promising approaches to bringing this "universal" dream closer to reality. One method, already in use by some pharmaceutical companies, uses cell cultures (instead of eggs) to reproduce viruses.
Other scientists are finding ways to use recombinant DNA technology in producing cell-based vaccines, which allows for identifying individual genes on a virus that are most likely to stimulate an immune response, and then using these particular genes in a different organism to create a more successful vaccine.
Other research targets components of the virus that remain more stable year-over-year, as opposed to current methods that target constantly-changing proteins on the surface of the flu virus.
The two biggest issues in developing a universal flu vaccine are common issues that come as no surprise " time and money. Big Pharma's drugmaking giants " like GlaxoSmithKline PLC, Sanofi SA, and Johnson & Johnson " recognize the need for new innovations in vaccinating against influenza, and vaccines can be big business for pharmaceutical companies. But in order to capitalize on the potential, experts say there needs to be a push for increased investment and funding.
Overall, if you look at the resources being used toward developing a universal flu vaccine, the numbers are relatively small across the world. Mobilizing funding is the first step in increasing efforts " and lawmakers are jumping onboard. Senator Ed Markey, for example, has recently introduced the Flu Vaccine Act, which aims to provide 1 billion over five years to fund efforts by the National Institutes of Health.
Still, results are not going to magically appear overnight. In the meantime, the seasonal flu shot is as important as ever " but with more time, new research, and increases in funding " we will be ever-closer to developing better and more effective vaccinations.
Further Reading & References:
Why Flu Outbreaks Have Been the Worst in Nearly a Decade. TIME. 28 February 2018.
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