Universal vaccine would eliminate wide-scale flu outbreaks

Researchers at Princeton University have found that the long-sought universal vaccine could effectively allow for wide-scale prevention of flu by limiting the ability of the influenza virus to mutate and spread.

The vaccines are called universal or cross-protective for their ability to protect against several flu strains. They are being developed in labs throughout the world. Some of the vaccines have already advanced to clinical trials, Science Daily reports.

The research, led by Nimalan Arinaminpathy, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton, shows that the new vaccines would make influenza bouts less severe, making it harder for the virus to spread and hampering the virus' ability to evolve.

"Because the flu quickly evolves to escape host immunity, current vaccines tend to be prioritized for inoculating specific high-risk groups such as asthma sufferers and the elderly every year," Arinaminpathy said, according to Science Daily. "So, at the moment, vaccine programs focus on clinical protection for those receiving the vaccine, but we hope to eventually graduate to being able to control the virus' spread and even its evolution. Our model provides a strong conceptual basis as to how and why the 'universal' vaccines would achieve that."

The research presents a major assessment of how the ability of universal vaccines to work against multiple flu strains could be used to improve public health.

"This is the first study that looks at the population consequences of the next generation of vaccines, both in terms of epidemiological impact and evolutionary impact on the virus," James Lloyd-Smith, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California-Los Angeles, said, according to Science Daily. "They combined the latest information out of these vaccine trials, and the very latest and best models of influenza virus evolution and epidemiology. They put those together and asked important and relevant questions about how this new vaccine would actually play out."

Universal vaccines act on targets within the viruses that are constant across multiple strains. The researchers determined that the vaccines could be used to avert a pandemic altogether, even if just a proportion of the population received the vaccinations. The study was supported by a National Institutes of Health grant.

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