NHS Plan to Test Universal Flu Vaccination

Wednesday 4th October 2017

Researchers at the University of Oxford are looking for 500 patients for a clinical test of what it calls a “universal” vaccine to fight seasonal flu, that combats the parts of the flu virus that do not change each year.

Currently the NHS flu vaccine is remade each year based on essentially the “best guess” made about the type of flu expected to be virulent each year.

The new vaccine can offer people better protection and protect against human, bird and swine influenza, claim the research team.

To stop widespread outbreaks of flu, the best line of defence is immunisation, but due to the variance in flu outbreaks and the necessity for a lead-in time for widespread production of any vaccine, researchers will make educated guesses as to which strain of flu will be in circulation and create a vaccine for that, and as such there is a variance in effectiveness of a given vaccine.

Last winter, the seasonal flu vaccine reduced the risk of flu in adults by two-fifths, however it struggled to work effectively in people over 65, despite the vaccine being a match for that year’s seasonal flu, something that has been ascribed to older people often having weaker immune systems which do not work as well with an immunisation.

As such, 500 NHS patients aged over 65 who live in Berkshire and Oxfordshire will be part of a clinical trial to measure the effectiveness of the new vaccine alongside the current seasonal flu injection, against the current injection and a placebo.

Current vaccinations works with the body’s immune system to attack the surface proteins, which usually appear as pin-like heads on the surface of the flu virus. This is an effective technique, providing the surface proteins remain the same, but given how wildly these vary, the vaccine must also be changed.

What the experimental virus does that changes everything is that it encourages the body’s immune system to create T-cells that are weaponised to take out core unchanging proteins in the flu virus’ core.

Because these proteins do not change between different types of flu virus, it can be used to fight multiple strains and while the current two year trial is focused on the typical one year immunisation cycle used for seasonal flu vaccinations, there is an expectation from the research team and those who fund it that the vaccine could last longer, and perhaps in future a five year immunisation cycle against flu could be possible.

This winter is expected to have a large outbreak of flu, after Australia and New Zealand suffered their worst outbreaks of the virus in recent years.

Given how quickly flu can spread and how devastating it can be to people who have weakened immune systems, anything that can help stop the flu from having widespread outbreaks is vital for protecting vulnerable people. It will be interesting to see how further studies turn out and whether this becomes the norm for flu vaccination.