The severity of the recent flu season wasn’t lost on officials trying to stop the virus.
“We need to make the universal flu vaccine a higher priority than it has been,” said Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Fauci revealed this when speaking to The Scientist in January.
Why is the influenza virus so difficult to combat, and why do we need to change the vaccination every year?
The influenza virus is one that constantly mutates. Both the human body and vaccines can struggle to keep up with a new version of the virus every year. Other viruses are relatively stable. This means scientists can create a single immunization to protect individuals for decades.
Another problem is that the flu comes with numerous strains.
No one knows which specific virus will become prevalent during the flu season. Added pressure is then on preliminary research to prevent an outbreak.
What does the flu vaccine actually do?
The flu vaccine targets one of the two major surface proteins of flu viruses and works to create antibodies against it for protection. This chosen protein is the most abundant, hemagglutinin (HA).
How do scientists propose to improve the inoculation and why are they doing this?
Recent studies published in April 2018 have caused scientists to question whether vaccinations should be targeting hemagglutinin. Instead, they could focus on the other main surface protein – neuraminidase (NA).
Researchers took blood samples of people who received the vaccine and those who were naturally infected with the H1N1 and H3N2 flu strains. The researchers, Dr. Florian Krammer at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai and Dr. Patrick Wilson at the University of Chicago Medicine, then compared the samples.
They found that the infection essentially brought out the same or greater number of anti-NA bodies as it did anti-HA ones.
The vaccination is already works to produce those anti-HA antibodies. With the study, it has become apparent that a vaccine targeting NA could prove more effective. This updated shot could provide a broader protection from influenza.
The theory was tested on infected mice.
The mice were given one strain of the H3N2 virus and given antibodies to fight NA from human patients who had a different H3N2 strain. The test resulted in 11 of 13 antibodies that gave successful protection, according to the National Institutes of Health.
While less successful, a similar test for H1N1 strain showed promising results. When giving the same antibodies to fight the H1N1 strain, four out of eight antibodies gave protection. They also helped protect against a flu strain like H5N1.
Ted Ross, a microbiologists at the University of Georgia, found another possible change to attack the flu.
The influenza virus resembles a sphere covered in growing mushrooms. Rather than targeting the mushroom head of the surface proteins, antibodies should attack the stalk. This could change how infections and mutations happen as the stalk is where the problem genome is released into the host cell.
Finally, it will be important for scientists to understand how our past exposures to the flu affect our bodies’ responses in the future. The idea of immunological imprinting is being examined by those such as Anthony Fauci and Dr. Florian Krammer.
So, is the current vaccination still worth getting?
This is due to the concept of herd immunity. Herd immunity means that when you get vaccinated you not only protect yourself, but others around you. The harmful germs have a harder time traveling throughout a community of people. This significantly reduces the possibility for outbreaks.
The current vaccine does help keep communities and individuals safer – researchers are simply hoping to improve it.
Even if you do catch the flu after being vaccinated, the vaccine can help your body respond better and faster. This applies even if you’re vaccinated against a different strain than you catch.
Written for Passport Health by Katherine Meikle. Katherine is a freelance writer and proud first-generation British-American living in Florida, where she was born and raised. She has a passion for travel and a love of writing, which go hand-in-hand.