Working toward beating the flu with a universal vaccine

Worker wearing gloves handling a box of vials (© Carolyn Kaster/AP Images)
A medical researcher works with a box of frozen flu virus strains at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. (© Carolyn Kaster/AP Images)

A century ago, an influenza pandemic infected an estimated third of the world’s population, killing 50 million people.

Today, 8,000 scientists track the emergence and movement of influenza viruses worldwide through the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID). This real-time surveillance system is used by governments, pharmaceutical manufacturers and medical professionals around the world to coordinate responses in the case of an outbreak.

As part of American scientists’ century-long research offensive aimed at preventing another such outbreak, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2005 asked Terrence Tumpey, a microbiologist, to reconstruct the 1918 influenza virus, more commonly known as the Spanish flu.

No complete culture had survived the pandemic. The strain Tumpey reconstructed lets scientists see the genetic markers that made it “such a killer,” as Tumpey put it.

Patients lying on beds in an emergency hospital in 1918 (© National Museum of Health and Medicine/AP Images)
Influenza patients crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1918. (© National Museum of Health and Medicine/AP Images)

Using the reconstructed virus, researchers discovered that 2009 H1N1, the strain that caused the swine flu outbreak just a decade ago, is a descendant of the 1918 H1N1 virus. Now scientists can track the emergence of strains with similar genetic markers to detect the potential for a pandemic before the virus can spread widely.

Data-sharing like that done through the GISAID helps scientists develop better vaccines, too. For example, scientists in the Northern Hemisphere closely monitor the flu season in the Southern Hemisphere, which runs from May to August, to predict which strains will most likely appear in the Northern Hemisphere in October. Vaccine manufacturers then make changes to that season’s vaccine to protect against strains circulating south of the equator.

In February 2018, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases unveiled its Universal Influenza Vaccine Strategic Plan, outlining research priorities and requirements for the development of a universal vaccine.

Such a vaccine would be a single shot that could protect patients for their lifetime from multiple strains of influenza virus that exist or that may exist in the future. It would eliminate the need for annual seasonal flu vaccinations and weaken the threat of another 1918 pandemic.

“No other country has the depth of scientific or technical expertise that we do,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in 2018, while announcing a grant of $12 million for scientists pursuing a universal vaccine. He emphasized the U.S. leadership role “in creating the kind of pandemic preparedness and response system the world needs.”