Wrong flu vaccine concerns have Duke researchers pursuing universal vaccine

Health Alert

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — The flu vaccine being produced for this year’s flu season may not be as effective as first thought.

The World Health Organization believes there may be a mismatch between what will be the active strains here and what the vaccine is designed to prevent.

Before the flu strikes, experts with the World Health Organization meet twice a year to decide which flu strains to target based on global trends.

That’s important because companies which make the vaccine have to start ramping up production well ahead of flu season to ensure there’s enough to go around and they need to know which strains to target.

“Having a vaccine mismatch is a fairly common problem,” says Dr. Tony Moody who is the Director of Duke’s Laboratory of B Cell Immunotechnology.

In the past, flu vaccines have not been as protective as they could be. In 2017 the flu vaccine was only 25 percent effective while in 2018 it was 45 percent effective.

This year the effectiveness is still an unknown.

Moody said when experts realize there’s a mismatch, it’s difficult to stop vaccine production and restart it again with agents designed to fight new strains.

“That’s challenging because to make enough vaccine to immunize hundreds of millions of people you need a big lead-up time,” he said. “So you need several months.”

The real solution is to create a universal flu vaccine, or at least more an effective flu vaccine.

There is research underway right here in the Triangle to do that.

“What we really want to do is make the next generation of vaccines that will improve on the vaccines we currently have,” said Moody.

The Duke Human Vaccine Institute has received $30 million in funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to create better flu vaccines and they say they have some vaccines that might work better and avoid some of the mismatch.

“The plan is to put something out we can put into testing in the next year or two,” said Moody.

If the options on all three contracts are awarded, total funding could be up to $400 million over seven years.

The contracts are part of an ambitious initiative under NIAID aimed at developing a longer-lasting, more broadly protective vaccine to replace the seasonal flu shot.

“if we can make a vaccine that cuts down on transmission or on people being symptomatic, that would still be a win even if it’s not perfect and covers every strain out there,” Moody said.

Ultimately, the Duke researchers would like to develop a universal flu vaccine that would be effective against all strains of flu and that would eliminate the guesswork on which vaccine to manufacture.

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