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‘Universal flu vaccine’ to be trialed this winter

Published on 03/10/17 at 09:06am

Researchers are enrolling 500 participants for the trial of a flu vaccine to protect the population against all strains of the flu virus.

The push to bring the vaccine to patients has been given more urgency after over-65s experienced only 30% to 40% immunity when given last year’s vaccine.

Over-65s are the most at-risk group when it comes to the influenza virus, as the immune system generally weaken with age. The major issue is that protection from the virus is beginning to wane in the last few years, with 2015 also experiencing a bad year for deaths from flu as the vaccine only protected 34% of individuals in lab tests.

The new vaccine fights the virus in a very different way than current methods; at present, current treatments attack the surface proteins of the flu cells, which stimulates an immune response to attack the virus.

The main issue with this method is also the reason that a new flu vaccine must be developed each winter – the protein tend to change every year meaning that the vaccine must be altered to target the mutated flu cells.

The new form of vaccine actually targets different proteins – these ‘core’ proteins do not change and are universal across influenza, meaning that if the vaccine were successful it would boost immunity to all types and potentially be more effective at eradicating the virus from the body.

The clinical trial will be able to test exactly how long this potential protection will last for, as well as how well it prevents the severity of the virus, over the two-year course of the research.

Scientists from Vaccitech, the University of Oxford spin-off company, predict that the new vaccine could potentially last five years, instead of the annual booster that is recommended at present.

The positive news in the fight against influenza though will not come soon enough for this year’s winter season, which is already proving to cause a major worry for the NHS. Bad flu seasons in Australia and New Zealand, which tend to be a predictor for the UK, has the service on high alert to the potential for major outbreaks.

Ben Hargreaves

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