Infectious disease experts recently highlighted the fact that even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, researchers were working on “the Holy Grail of pandemic preparedness.”

“In 2018, the National Institutes of Health [NIH] unveiled a strategic plan1 to develop a universal flu vaccine,” observed Jeanne Marrazzo, MD, MPH, FIDSA, director of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Speaking with reporters during a session hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) on Sept. 10, Marrazzo discussed the implications of such a development.2

“The perfect influenza vaccine would protect against not just many different kinds of influenza A, but also some influenza B,” she said. “It would have durable protection so you may not have to get vaccinated every year.”

In May 2018, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases launched a Phase II trial of a universal flu vaccine.3 Thanks to the accelerated development of new platforms to develop vaccines, there could be more candidates soon. “The flu vaccine is still developed in chicken eggs, which seems really archaic given that in six months we developed COVID vaccines, using these incredible [mRNA-based] platforms,” she said. “If there are any silver linings to the COVID pandemic, at least one of them will be hopefully transferring some of these ... really dramatically fast technologies and platforms to the influenza vaccine arena.”

A breakthrough cannot come soon enough, considering recent reports of an emerging virus circulating in China.4 “There is currently an influenza A [virus] that is spreading in pig farms and pig farmers [there],” noted Leonard Mermel, DO, ScM, ScM, AM (Hon), FACP, FIDSA, FSHEA, a professor of medicine at Brown University and medical director of the department of epidemiology and infection control at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.

Mermel, who also spoke during the IDSA session, noted that upward of 15% of pig farmers in China have antibodies to this unique strain, which he said was more virulent, more infectious, and produces worse outcomes than many influenza strains.

“It has all the attributes of causing a pandemic,” Mermel warned. “We’ve got to get the universal flu vaccine before this virus, which is basically locked, loaded, and ready to go, spreads from China’s pig farmers to other parts of Eurasia to other parts of the world.”

Mermel noted that there are still other flu viruses that are spreading from animals to humans, too. “The race is on for a universal vaccine, and it is of the utmost urgency,” he stressed.

REFERENCES

  1. National Institutes of Health. NIAID unveils strategic plan for developing a universal influenza vaccine. Feb. 28, 2018.
  2. Infectious Diseases Society of America. IDSA media briefing. Sept. 10, 2020.
  3. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Universal influenza vaccine research. Content last reviewed Sept. 5, 2019.
  4. Sun H, Xiao Y, Liu J, et al. Prevalent Eurasian avian-like H1N1 swine influenza virus with 2009 pandemic viral genes facilitating human infection. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2020;117:17204-17210.