Universal Influenza Vaccine: Update 1

Over the past week and a half, I have been researching basic facts about the influenza virus and the burden of influenza on the U.S. healthcare system, with an emphasis on the 2017-2018 influenza season. I have also begun to delve into the structure of the influenza virus, though this has been more challenging than I initially expected. Originally, I had ambitiously planned to extensively cover the detailed structure of the most prevalent influenza virus subtypes and lineages circulating in the United States human population (namely, the A(H3N2) and A(H1N1) influenza A subtypes and the B/Yamagata and B/Victoria influenza B lineages) before launching into my comparison of the various efforts to create a universal flu vaccine. However, I did not anticipate how complicated this structural information truly is and how large the gap is between my current comprehension level and the comprehension level necessary to understand the many scientific articles written about this subject. As a result, my research has been progressing much more slowly than I had hoped. Nevertheless, I am persevering through all of the highly technical language and working my way slowly but surely through the literature. Hopefully, I will be able to get into researching attempts to create a universal flu vaccine and begin my analysis of these efforts in the coming days. As I research, I have been creating a detailed outline of my paper so that once I have finished the research portion of my project, it should be fairly easy (fingers crossed!) to turn my outline into a cohesive, essay format.

 

Essentially, there are four different types of influenza viruses: A, B, C, and D. However, only A and B are capable of causing epidemic-level illness in humans, so only those two types are included in the seasonal flu vaccine. Every subtype of influenza A virus contains two surface proteins, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, from which the name of each specific flu subtype is derived (for example, A(H1N1), known more commonly as swine flu). Since there are 18 types of hemagglutinin and 11 types of neuraminidase, there are a large number of possible combinations. Influenza B viruses are not separated into subtypes but rather into genetic lineages, with the B/Yamagata and B/Victoria lineages currently circulating in the human population. Unfortunately, the complications don’t stop there: influenza viruses are constantly recombining and evolving, gaining new genetic sequences through mutation, which requires the creation of a new flu vaccine cocktail for each flu season. Currently, I am exploring the structures of both A and B influenza viruses in great detail and how quickly these genetic variations can occur in order to determine the subtle similarities all influenza viruses share that could hypothetically be targeted by one single, universal flu vaccine, thus rendering the seasonal vaccine obsolete.

Comments

  1. mtscherer says:

    Hi Natalie! Everything you’re talking about in this post seems so complicated all ready! I can’t believe it can be even worse! I never knew there could be so many combinations of a flu virus. Now it makes much more sense how hard it is to create a flu vaccine that can 100% effectively protect against the flu vaccine. Why did you choose the 2017-2018 flu season for your research? I think I heard people talking about the ineffectiveness of the last years vaccine, but is that out of the ordinary? I can’t wait to hear about it!

  2. Hey Maddie! Great question! According to the CDC, the seasonal flu vaccine is between 40%-60% effective on average, with the vaccine effectiveness for each flu season usually falling somewhere within this range. I chose the 2017-2018 flu season both because it is the most recent data available and because preliminary analysis shows that the vaccine was only 36% effective, a figure that falls outside the normal range. This lowered effectiveness sparked outrage and renewed general interest in the possibility of a universal flu vaccine to replace the seasonal one, which was what initially spurred me to undertake this research project.

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