Scientists have come up with a new generation of vaccines that can offer up to 88 percent protection from known strains of the flu virus around the world in just one shot.
For a study published in the journal Bioinformatics, an international team of researchers used revolutionary computational techniques to identify vaccine components known as epitropes that will provide broader, longer-lasting protection against the flu virus.
Based on their work, the scientists came up with two universal flu vaccines: one, specific to the United States, targeting 95 percent of known strains in the country, and the other offering coverage against 88 percent of know flu strains worldwide.
Flu vaccines are developed based on projections guided by earlier strains of the virus. Each year, scientists come together to decide on which strains to develop vaccines for, hoping that what they have created will protect as intended.
According to Derek Gatherer, one of the authors of the study, this method has been proven safe and effective, but there are times it doesn't work, such as what happened in the winter of 2014 to 2015. Additionally, the vaccines produced every year don't offer protection against possible pandemic flu in the future. Previous pandemics in 1918, 1957 and 1968 resulted in the deaths of millions.
However, annual flu epidemics are still resulting in half a million deaths around the world, even with flu vaccines in place, pointed out Gatherer.
"It doesn't have to be this way ... We can use computers to design the components of a vaccine that gives much broader and longer-lasting protection," he said.
Pedro Reche, also an author for the study, explained that the vaccines they developed would use epitropes, or short flu virus fragments, that have already been encountered by the immune system. Specifically, the epitropes they selected were chosen in an effort to maximize population coverage.
Vaccines based on epitropes are not new, added co-author Darren Flower, but many don't have experimental validation. By using only epitropes that have been tested before, the researchers were able not only to avoid this problem but also design vaccines with high chances of success. They are now actively looking for pharmaceutical partners to synthesize their vaccines so they can get started on a proof-of-principle test in the laboratory.
In the meantime, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging Americans to get regular flu shots as the flu season begins. Just 46 percent of the population were vaccinated during the previous season, with the biggest decline observed among adults between the ages of 50 and 64.
"If we could increase vaccination coverage in this country by just 5 percent, that would prevent about 800,000 illnesses and nearly 10,000 hospitalizations," said Tom Frieden, CDC director.