CLEVELAND, Ohio — If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, the commercial development of mRNA vaccines might be it.
Not only did the scientific community come together to develop the COVID-19 vaccines at a pace that was formerly unimaginable, but now that the emergency is over, researchers are reaping more rewards from their labors — other mRNA vaccines.
Specifically, the flu vaccine.
The National Institutes of Health announced last week that it is enrolling volunteers for a clinical trial of an experimental flu vaccine that would cover many, if not all strains of the flu, not just four selected each year by researchers in anticipation of the following flu season. It would use the same mRNA technology used to develop the COVID-19 vaccine to make it.
And perhaps just as importantly – in the best-case scenario – this could turn out to mean the end of the need for annual flu shots.
Current seasonal flu vaccines are made by using chicken eggs to manufacture a portion of the flu virus that is highly variable between strains and changes year to year. Government researchers select the four strains they think will be the most common in the next flu season. The eggs are injected with the desired strains of virus, and it is allowed to replicate. Later the virus is killed and purified into vaccine.
The process, which has been used for more that 70 years, has several disadvantages. It is extremely time consuming. And it only protects against four strains of flu, which may or may not be the dominant circulating strains the following flu season.
The new vaccine focuses on a portion of the flu virus that is common across all strains of flu, making it “universal” and greatly improves the manufacturing speed by utilizing the mRNA platform. An mRNA vaccine, provides the instructions for the body to make its own virus, eliminating the need to create and purify virus from eggs. What takes months using eggs can be done in less than a week using mRNA.
The new trial is the first to attempt to create a universal flu vaccine that also utilizes mRNA.
If successful, it could mean a significantly more effective flu vaccine year to year, and potentially change the way we vaccinate against flu.
“A universal influenza vaccine would be a major public health achievement and could eliminate the need for both annual development of seasonal influenza vaccines, as well as the need for patients to get a flu shot each year,” said Acting NIAID Director Dr. Hugh Auchincloss.
“Moreover, some strains of influenza virus have significant pandemic potential. A universal flu vaccine could serve as an important line of defense against the spread of a future flu pandemic.”
The phase 1 trial out of Duke University will enroll up to 50 healthy volunteers aged 18 through 49, and will establish the dosing, safety and efficacy of the vaccine.
“The COVID vaccine really surpassed our expectations,” said Case Western Reserve University professor David Canaday.
Standard flu vaccines vary in their effectiveness from 15% to 70%, with 60% being considered a great accomplishment, he said.
“Compared to the COVID-19 vaccine that’s 95% effective, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the flu shot” Canaday said.
Canaday cautions, however, that it’s not yet certain whether it’s even possible to create a vaccine for flu that’s as effective as the COVID-19 vaccine. But he said even if it was only 60% effective and universal across all strains of flu it would make a real difference. “That’s definitely an improvement,” Canaday said.
Source: Cleve Land