Influenza, like all viruses, has a simple structure. A package of genetic material (in this case RNA), is covered by a protein envelope. On the outside of the envelope, two essential enzymes, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, which help attach the virus to the host cell and cleave it off from it, respectively.
Up until now, these two proteins, which vary from one subtype or strain of flu to the next, have been the target antigens for the yearly flu vaccine. This is why the yearly vaccine is like shooting at a moving target, attempting to provide protection against the prevailing strains even as these strains wane and others become more prominent. Billions of dollars are spent every year worldwide creating billions of doses of a trivalent vaccine that covers three major strains, only to see millions of unused doses discarded at the end of the year.
Now a new vaccine that covers all flu strain and targets an “M” protein at the center of all flu viruses has been studied at Oxford University's Jenner Institute. A small group (22 volunteers) were exposed to the flu, and half were given the new vaccine. Not only did they appear to tolerate it well, but reportedly showed a much lower rate of getting sick while showing an immune response.
Though this is a very small study, and the vaccine clearly needs to be studied for safety and efficacy in thousands before it can ever be considered for public use, at the same time this is clearly a big step forward for flu and flu vaccines. The time when we will be able to take one flu vaccine that will last for years and cover all strains is finally in the foreseeable future.
Yet the American news media has given this study very little attention. Perhaps this is because the study is so small and preliminary, and perhaps it is because so many resources are tied up in the inefficient vaccines we already have. Whatever the real reason, the new vaccine and its enormous potential against the deadly flu virus are very worthy of our interest.
Marc Siegel, MD, is an internist and professor of medicine at New York University and the author of False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear