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Researchers are closing in on a universal flu vaccine


Researchers say they are closing in on a universal influenza vaccine.

The innovation will eliminate the necessity of a new seasonal vaccine each year. The flu virus is constantly mutating to evade the immune system, so defenses built up in the body against last year's virus are obsolete, and researchers have to chase new strains of the virus by producing new vaccines each year.

But researchers discovered that, while the virus itself is constantly changing, the stem of the virus appears to remain relatively unchanged from year to year.

Vaccine research at NIH
A biologist places a vial of flu-fighting antibodies in ice at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health.

A report published in the journal Science details the new approach, which targets the common thread among each virus in one universal vaccine, while also boosting the immune system.

The more all-encompassing vaccine is a welcome innovation, as the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention say the U.S. is experiencing "widespread and intense flu activity this season."

The vaccine could also increase preparedness for any unpredictable pandemics in the future. There have been three influenza pandemics in the last hundred years, and experts say the world isn't immune to another catastrophic super-flu like the Spanish flu that killed tens of millions of people across the globe.

"[This will be] a vaccine that is going to protect you against essentially all, or most, strains of influenza."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH

Labs across the country are pushing forward in developing the vaccine, which thus far has only been tested on animals. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health currently face a momentary setback, as the government shutdown put a temporary halt to experiments.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH, warned that the break in research is disruptive to the scientific process. "You have experiments that have been going on for months, if not years and then all of a sudden you've got to stop," Dr. Fauci said. "You can't do that, you can't push the pause button on an experiment."

Flu shots
Flu-related deaths in California are higher than usual so far this season and most victims were not vaccinated. State health officials urge residents to get flu shots.

When progress resumes, the universal vaccine could be ready within years, according to Peter Palese at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. But, Palese adds, the current available seasonal vaccines are still better than nothing at all, until a more robust version is finalized. "Not everyone may be protected one hundred percent, but it is certainly better than no safety belts."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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