May 25, 2019 | Updated: 10:06 PM EDT

The Universal Flu Vaccine: How Long Until It's Here

Jan 14, 2015 10:11 PM EST

Vaccine and syringe
(Photo : NIAID/Flickr)

The Influenza virus, or "the flu" as it is commonly referred to, affects millions of people worldwide each and every year. Often the onset of infection is noted by high-fevers, nausea, cold-sweats, and an overall uneasiness. But the virus is a master of diversion, continually adapting and changing its structure, season to season; in fact, no two strains are alike. And it's this temporal sly of hand that inhibits a universal vaccine. But, what was once a problem for researchers may now be a thing of the past.

"What we have a vaccine for is producing antibodies that are somewhat different than what the flu is," Mount Sinai Health System's CEO and President Kenneth Davis says, speaking about the current vaccine. "This is, generally speaking, how we vaccinate people against the seasonal outbreaks of flu. It's giving your body an upper-hand when it's exposed to the virus, allowing your immune system to kick-in to overdrive and destroy the small invasive viral load."

That's not to say the vaccine is full-proof. In fact, it's far from it. This year's flu vaccine was estimated to be effective only 33% of the time, leaving the other 67% exposed, symptomatic, and communicable. Granted, the most prevalent strain this year, H3N2, has proven to be a well-built and aggressive strain with hyper-symptomatic effects. But it's those pathological characteristics that have left some wondering about the potentially high mortality rate of this year's flu strain.

"[...] we might even set a record for the number of cases treated in December," says Patsy Stinchfield, Director of Infection Prevention and Control. The virus is leaving its hosts with mucous-flooded chests, shortness of breath, and possibly traveling through the blood stream, infecting the brain's gray-matter much like meningitis.

But in spite of the particular virality of each strain, a universal vaccine for the flu would help aid the serum's overall efficacy and provide the vaccinated individuals with, quite possibly, years-and-years of protection from multiple strains of influenza.

"The ideal vaccine is directed at the stable part of the virus that doesn't change from year-to-year. That's very hard to do," Davis says. 

And with that in mind, the team at Mount Sinai is currently in the process of developing such a serum formulated on common structures found in most influenza strains. Rather than predicting the average mutations of the virus from year to year, this new serum would protect against most plausible variations in the virus, though would still have its drawbacks in a particularly virulent year.

"A universal vaccine is the Holy Grail and the prospects of what this could do for medicine is staggering," chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Dr. William Schaffner says. And while it may take a few years to perfect, Davis and his team of researchers are hopeful that their studies may provide universal protection again the virus in all its forms in the very near future.

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