The flu is often mistaken for the common cold, but when the symptoms (body aches, chills, weakness, fatigue, and coughing) hit you suddenly, it is usually the first sign of a not so run-of-the-mill viral infection. The only weapon against it right now is the annual flu shot. But what if you could get a series of shots just once and not face that dreaded needle every year? The medical community has had some major breakthroughs towards a more permanent solution: a universal flu vaccine.
“The virus changes a lot,” said Florian Krammer, a microbiologist at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine. “If you don't get vaccinated, you don't have protection against these newest variants. We have a hard time predicting this variance, but, often, we get it right.”
Krammer’s lab is one of several working to create a better, more stable flu vaccine that would potentially require a series of shots, just once. To do that, his team is targeting a different part of the virus than the traditional flu shot.
“There is a surface protein on the virus that the virus uses to attach to our cells, and that protein has two parts. You can imagine it like a mushroom,” said Krammer. “The target currently with our vaccines that are on the market is the cap of the mushroom.”
Here is how a traditional flu shot targets the virus:
The current vaccines work when they match the dominant strains that are circulating. However, since it is the cap of the protein that changes, or drifts, as the virus moves from person to person, the flu vaccine doesn’t always offer full protection.
“If [the virus] changes, the antibodies don't bind anymore and that happens very frequently,” said Krammer.
The global push to find a universal flu vaccine has intensified in recent years, as more scientists are focusing on the stalk of the mushroom-shaped protein. “Typically the immune system doesn't like to target that part, but it's relatively conserved. [The stalk] doesn't change a lot,” said Krammer. His lab was the first in the country to lead human clinical trials with a vaccine designed to target the stalk.
The interim results are published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases. “We actually got the immune response we predicted we would get,” said Krammer. Which means the vaccine successfully triggered the immune system to produce antibodies against the stalk. “That's a very important first step, but obviously there needs to be more work done.”
This fall, the National Institutes of Health announced a new initiative: Collaborative Influenza Vaccine Innovation Centers program called CIVICs, which connects and funds institutions that are working on a universal vaccine, including Krammer’s lab at Mount Sinai.
As the work on the vaccine accelerates, the one thing the public can do right now is get annual flu shots. The CDC says if vaccination rates increased by just five percent, 483,000 illnesses and 6,950 hospitalizations could be avoided. Just as with the measles, higher vaccine adherence could stop the spread of influenza. Even with recent measles outbreaks, as of October that virus is no longer being transmitted in the U.S. The measles is much more infectious than the flu, one person infects nine out of 10 unprotected people around them. With the flu, one infected person makes approximately two others sick.
How contagious are they? Here is a look at the measles vs. the flu:
So if measles can be contained, so can the flu, according to Krammer. “If you could get these vaccination rates up, and if you could make the vaccine a little bit better,” he said, “we might not see flu seasons like we see them right now anymore.”