Flu expert Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at New York University, explained how a longer-term influenza vaccine might work.
"The flu virus is a very simple thing," he said. "It's a collection of genetic particles wrapped in an envelope." In particular, two proteins on the outside of the envelope allow the virus to infect a person, and there are many different varieties of these proteins, Seigel said. Current vaccines target these outside proteins, which is why vaccines must be changed each year.
But the flu virus also contains proteins within it that are common to all flu viruses, he said. A universal flu vaccine would work by targeting such proteins. The body would then develop antibodies to these types of proteins, which theoretically would make you immune to all or most circulating flu strains, Siegal explained.
"I think this [new vaccine] is very exciting," he said. "It's the flu vaccine of the future."
However, even if a universal vaccine works out, it would not be a once-in-a-lifetime shot, Gilbert stressed. "You would probably need boosters," she said.
One concern about a universal flu shot has been side effects, such as fever and flu-like symptoms. But this appears not to be a problem so far, Gilbert said. "We have been assessing safety very carefully in the phase 1 and phase 2 studies and we haven't had any problems with safety," she said.
She believes it will take at least five years before the vaccine could be ready for use by the general public.
But another expert cautioned that the public shouldn't get overly excited just yet.
"The concept that there would be a universal flu vaccine would be a grand slam home run," said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of the division of infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, NY. "The fact is that we are years away from that," he added.
Farber said any vaccine would have to be tested
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