London: Scientists have designed a new generation of universal flu vaccines that protects against majority of the known viral strains and help prevent future global pandemics that could kill millions.
The researchers devised two universal vaccines. One can protect against up to 88 per cent of known flu strains worldwide in a single shot, spelling the end of the winter flu season.
Another vaccine covers 95 per cent of known US influenza strains, they said.
“Every year we have a round of flu vaccination, where we choose a recent strain of flu as the vaccine, hoping that it will protect against next year’s strains. We know this method is safe, and that it works reasonably well most of the time,” said Derek Gatherer of Lancaster University in the UK.
“However, sometimes it doesn’t work – as in the H3N2 vaccine failure in winter 2014-2015 – and even when it does it is immensely expensive and labour-intensive,” Gatherer said.
“Also, these yearly vaccines give us no protection at all against potential future pandemic flu,” he said.
Previous pandemics include the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918, and the two subsequent pandemics of 1957 and 1968, which led to millions of deaths.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), annual flu epidemics are estimated to cause up to half a million deaths globally.
“Based on our knowledge of the flu virus and the human immune system, we can use computers to design the components of a vaccine that gives much broader and longer-lasting protection,” said Gatherer.
“The components of this vaccine would be short flu virus fragments – called epitopes – that are already known to be recognised by the immune system. Our collaboration has found a way to select epitopes reaching full population coverage,” said Pedro Reche of Complutense University in Spain.
“Epitope-based vaccines aren’t new, but most reports have no experimental validation. We have turned the problem on its head and only use previously-tested epitopes,” said Darren Flower of Aston University in the UK.
“This allows us to get the best of both worlds, designing a vaccine with a very high likelihood of success,” Flower said.