Universal flu vaccine remains ‘an alchemist’s dream’

What if instead of lining up for a flu shot of unknown effectiveness each fall, people could receive one vaccine that protects against all strains and lasts for many years, if not for life. It could spare incalculable amounts of suffering, and even eliminate terrifying pandemics. Scientists have spent decades trying to concoct such a “universal” flu vaccine and, at times, they seem to have made solid headway. But it remains an “alchemist’s dream,” as one virologist declared last month at a gathering on the topic organised by the Human Vaccines Project, a non-profit based in New York City. An infusion of funding has boosted the research: $160 million next year from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, up from $60 million 2 years ago. But the effort is an exercise in humility, several leading flu researchers acknowledged at the meeting. “Every year we learn that we know less and less about this virus,” says Martin Friede, a biochemist who coordinates the Initiative for Vaccine Research at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Each year vaccine-makers concoct a new preparation that contains harmless versions of flu strains in circulation the previous year. These seasonal vaccines have a mediocre efficacy of 20% to 60%, in part because the vaccine is often a poor match for the virus people actually contract (Science, 22 September 2017, p. 1222). Other, less obvious factors highlighted at the meeting also influence the response to the seasonal vaccine, including the immune system’s memory of past exposure to viral variants.

Science, 30 November 2018 ; http://sciencemag.org/