It took years of hard work, but researchers are claiming that they are closer to developing a universal, and perhaps even a permanent, influenza vaccine.
Two separate researches published in both the Science and Nature Medicine were able to successfully hone in on a stable part of the virus that, if targeted, by vaccines could mean more effective immunization for a wider spectrum of influenza viruses.
This should then eliminate the need for repeated shots every year.
"It's a very good stepping stone," said Prof. John Oxford from the University of London regarding this development. "Ultimately, the hope is to get a vaccine that will cover a pandemic virus."
Mutation rate for influenza viruses is quite high, which is the reason why flu vaccines need to be administered every year. To be specific, the reason is because the vaccines specifically target the part of the virus that constantly mutates.
The antibody response to influenza is focused on the head part of the virus that undergoes frequent changes. To make acquiring influenza immunization more complicated, the vaccines are not as effective as many would like.
Every year, healthcare authorities have to predict which strains will be prevalent during influenza season and prepare weakened or dead versions of these strains as vaccines for distribution to the public. Already, the guesswork part of this process, no matter how educated or well-researched, already contains a margin for error.
Granted, this strategy does help save lives, but it has a low effectiveness rate, especially among older people, and there are times when predictions can be wrong, leading to infection of thousands every year.
"The vaccines we use for flu are really using decades-old technology," Prof. Sarah Gilbert from the University of Oxford remarked. "There's nothing else we vaccinate against every year."
Aside from obvious immunity and healthcare problems, huge sums of money are also being lost every year to finance annual flu vaccinations as well as research on how to improve the immunization process. It costs around 2 to 4 billion dollars annually to fund repeated vaccine creation and distribution in the U.S. every year.
But if a broad spectrum influenza virus can be created, majority of these problems can be eliminated while giving flu vaccines a wider range of effectiveness.
Currently, samples of these broad spectrum influenza vaccines are being tested on mice and ferrets. It may take several years, but given the results on animal tests, experts are hopeful that better human vaccines for flu are possible in the future.