Twice a year, the World Health Organization (WHO) meets in order to conduct tests and announce which flu strains will be combated by that year’s vaccine. The vaccines—or flu shots—are released in two waves: one in February for the northern hemisphere’s flu season, and the other in September for the southern hemisphere’s. The process is regulated like clockwork, but its science can often be surprisingly imprecise. According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 40 million Americans suffered from the flu in 2015-16, with 970,000 being hospitalised. If the right strains are included, flu shots have a success rate as high as 70% or 80% (rarely, if ever, will an influenza shot be 100% effective). However, if the right strains aren’t included, that percentage can be significantly lower.
The process can be a bit volatile. The 2017/18 flu shot is said to have only a 10% success rate, as evidenced by high numbers of diagnoses in Australia. It’s the kind of problem that feeds into widespread anti-vaccination hysteria, and one that Tom Evans, CEO of Oxford-based vaccine manufacturer Vaccitech, is attempting to do away with entirely. His company is currently working on a trial universal vaccine that intends to immunise patients against every strain of type A influenza—in a single shot.
Traditional flu vaccines work in a highly specific way: they target a protein on the surface of the virus, which comes in 19 different forms. The forms are all identified by a single letter H, which is usually used to emphasize the risk posed by the disease. The swine flu outbreak of 2009 was identified as H1N1; the Aussie Flu this year, strain H3N2, is slated to make for one of Australia’s worst flu seasons over the last decade.
One Shot To Rule Them All
The research has been made possible thanks to a £20 million investment by GV, a venture capital team associated with Google’s parent company Alphabet. Additional funding has come from Sequoia China and the company’s existing backer Oxford Sciences Innovation. The money raised is being split between the many projects each firm is currently working on, with a scheduled completion goal of 2019, at which point the flu vaccine will be ready for final stages of clinical trials.
It is, as always, rather difficult to successfully predict which strain of the flu will be most prevalent during a specific season. The inability to predict that is largely why the effectiveness of flu shots can sometimes seem unpredictable. Each vaccine only works against the specific strain it’s designed to combat, which makes it impossible to ensure that everyone is vaccinated. But by targeting the protein specifically, Evans’ team hopes to get one step closer to a universal vaccine that builds on and boosts the efficiency of the existing ones.
This wouldn’t be the first time that researchers have attempted to fuse vaccinations with the same level of one-stop efficiency that’s dictating the current tech boom. A group of researchers from the Nebraska Center for Virology succeeded in November 2017 in the early development of a lifelong vaccine. The vaccine has until now only been tested on mice, who survived exposure to what the researchers called “lethal doses of seven of nine widely divergent influenza viruses.” But the results—the mice who received higher doses of the vaccine didn’t get sick at all—have been promising enough to push the idea of human-tests forward.
The universal vaccine is now entering its second year of a two-year trial, with more than 2,000 people as subjects. The results of the trial will decide the next part of the story, and whether vaccine manufacturers will be clamouring to produce and distribute the shot. But with flu outbreaks responsible for between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths a year, it’s safe to say that the experiment is long overdue. The mutation of the influenza virus is largely to blame for the oft-decreasing efficiency of the shots, meaning that maybe we can take a lesson from the flu itself: as the disease grows stronger, our responses should follow suit.