For those of us who are prone to getting the flu, here's the greatest news since the invention of Netflix: Scientists announced this weekend that they've designed two new comprehensive flu vaccines, including a U.S.-specific vaccine they say covers 95 percent of known U.S. influenza strains and a universal vaccine that protects against 88 percent of known flu strains globally.
Every year influenza kills about 36,000 people in the United States, making it number eight on the list of most lethal illnesses, according to the most recent government data. There is a way to prevent and lessen the flu, however: The flu vaccine. Yet many people resist getting vaccinated—and even when they do, the flu vaccine ranges in efficacy from 30 to 80 percent, depending on the year. This is because a new vaccine has to be made in advance of each flu season based on predictions about which flu strains will be the worst that year. But now scientists have come up with a genius solution to this problem, announcing a universal flu vaccine in a report published in Bioinformatics.
"Every year we choose a recent strain of flu as the vaccine, hoping that it will protect against next year's strains, and it works reasonably well most of the time," says Derek Gatherer, Ph.D., a professor at Lancaster University and one of the authors of the paper. "However, sometimes it doesn't work and even when it does it is expensive and labor-intensive. Also, these yearly vaccines give us no protection at all against potential future pandemic flu."
The new universal vaccine solves these problems using new technology to analyze 20 years of data on the flu to see which parts of the virus evolve the least and are therefore the best to protect against, Gatherer explains. "The current vaccines are safe, but not always effective as sometimes the flu virus will suddenly evolve in unexpected directions, so our synthetic construct would, we believe, produce immunity that would survive these unexpected changes in the virus," he says.
This would make the new vaccines able to adapt to changing flu seasons without needing an entirely new vaccine and would be markedly more effective, he adds. But before you rush to the pharmacy to request the universal vaccine, there is some bad news: It's not in production yet.
At the moment, the vaccine is still theoretical and not being made in a lab, Gatherer says, adding that he's hopeful that will happen soon. Even so, it will likely be several years before the universal flu shot hits clinics near you. So in the meantime, he advises getting the current flu shot (it's better than nothing!) and taking good care of yourself during flu season. Try these 5 easy ways to stay cold- and flu-free.