What's A Universal Flu Vaccine, And How Close Are We To Developing It?

Influenza kills about a half million people each year, but scientists say a universal flu vaccine might drastically change that.
Posted at 5:15 PM, Sep 26, 2017

As flu season approaches, medical professionals are preparing to dole out some 166 million shots to vaccinate Americans against the disease. But flu vaccines are only about 40-60 percent effective and don't always work for the elderly or when they're delivered through the nose.

But scientists think we're close to developing a universal flu vaccine that might only need to be administered as little as once during a person's lifetime. If it works, it might protect everyone on Earth from flu pandemics.

Humans get the flu when a protein from an influenza virus attaches to our cells. Typical flu vaccines force our immune system to create antibodies that recognize that protein and wrap around its head. But the head frequently changes to avoid those antibodies, which eventually makes vaccines ineffective.

However, that protein head is also attached to a stalk that changes less than heads do. They're much harder for antibodies to reach, but scientists think if they figure out how to get to the stalk, they can develop a universal vaccine.

It could be in your system sooner than you think, too. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said he was optimistic that we could see a universal vaccine as early as 2020 or 2025.