Is a universal flu vaccine within reach?

By ISAAC CHEN | October 13, 2016

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JOHN KEITH/PUBLIC DOMAIN Research and development for the seasonal flu shot is costly and labor intensive.

First, you see someone nearby turning their head towards their inner elbow to cough or sneeze. Then you see someone else sniffling while desperately looking for a tissue. Yes, it’s that time of year again when everyone gets sick: flu season.

Currently, people have to get a flu shot every year to be protected against the seasonal flu. Since the viruses change and mutate quickly, these vaccines are created based on predictions from research that indicates which types of viruses that would be most common during the upcoming year. The more closely the vaccine matches the circulating virus, the more effective the vaccine.

However, developing an accurate and effective flu vaccine is labor intensive and extremely expensive. Sometimes, the vaccine may not even be effective if the virus mutates too quickly. As such, researchers around the world are studying new ways to create universal flu vaccines that would increase protection against seasonal flu strains and eliminate the need to create new vaccines every year.

In a recent paper published in the journal Bioinformatics, an international group of scientists led by Qamar M. Sheikh of Aston University in Birmingham, England has developed a novel approach to designing flu vaccines using informatics-based immunological predictions.

Sheikh and his team designed two types of vaccines with informatics: The first type targets viruses common in the U.S. and other is a universal vaccine. These vaccines would be created from epitopes, short flu virus fragments that are already recognized by the human immune systems.

Their results demonstrated that the first vaccine would be effective in fighting against 95 percent of observed influenza viruses in the US population. The second type would be effective for 88 percent of known influenza strains around the world.

“A universal flu vaccine is potentially within reach,” Pedro Reche, a researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid and one of the co-authors of the paper, said in a press release. “Our collaboration has found a way to select epitopes reaching full population coverage.”

While the researchers are still working on developing and testing the vaccine, Sheikh’s experiment provides lots of interest and hope for future strategies against the influenza.

Although a universal flu vaccine is not yet available, there are several ways that we can protect ourselves this upcoming flu season. In an email to The News-letter, Dr. Alain Joffe, director of the Hopkins Student Health and Wellness Center (HelWell) emphasized the importance of maintaining physical and mental health to prevent contracting influenza virus.

“It’s really important for students to give themselves permission to take care of themselves when they are sick,” Joffe wrote. “Students should not go to class while they have a fever — you can’t really learn well with a fever and if you have a fever you are likely quite infectious and can spread the flu virus to other people.”

Joffe also highlighted the importance of getting the seasonal flu shot.

There are several convenient ways that Hopkins students and faculty can get their flu shots before flu season progresses. HelWell offers flu shots at its main location as well as flu clinics at various locations on campus.

Upcoming flu clinics are on Oct. 26 in Brody 4040 from 4 to 7 p.m. and Nov. 7 in the Great Hall in Levering from 1 to 4 p.m.

A full schedule can be found at studentaffairs.jhu.edu/student-health/2016-2017-flu-clinic-schedule/. Flu shots from the SHWC are free for those with the school insurance and $20 otherwise. Pharmacies like CVS also offer free flu shots for most insurance plans.

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