Universal flu vaccine based on mRNA technology to be tested by National Institutes of Health

Patients are now enrolling in an early-stage clinical trial to test a universal flu vaccine based on messenger RNA technology, the National Institutes of Health announced Monday.

Scientists hope the vaccine will protect against a wide variety of flu strains and provide long-term immunity so people don’t have to get vaccinated every year.

Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is the technology behind the widely used Covid vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer. The NIH played a crucial role in the development of the mRNA platform used by Moderna.

“A universal flu vaccine could serve as an important line of defense against the spread of a future flu pandemic,” Dr. Hugh Auchincloss, acting director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday.

The universal flu vaccine trial will recruit up to 50 healthy people between the ages of 18 and 49 to test whether the experimental vaccine is safe and produces an immune response, according to the NIH.

The study will also include participants who receive a quadrivalent flu vaccine, which protects against four strains of the virus, to compare the experimental universal vaccine to those currently on the market.

The universal vaccine was developed by researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The clinical trial is recruiting volunteers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

The current generation of influenza vaccines provide significant protection against hospitalization, but vaccine effectiveness can vary significantly from year to year.

Scientists currently have to predict months in advance which flu strains will dominate so that vaccine makers have time to produce the vaccines before the respiratory virus season.

Dominant flu strains can change between when experts select strains and when manufacturers release vaccines. Some seasons the injections are not well suited to the circulating strains and are therefore less effective.

Flu vaccines reduce the risk of disease by 40 to 60 percent when matched well to circulating strains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But some years vaccine effectiveness has been as low as 19% because the vaccine was not well matched.

The flu killed between 12,000 and 52,000 people a year in the United States from 2010 to 2020 depending on the strains circulating and the match of injections, according to the CDC.

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