FREE NEWSLETTER: Econintersect sends a nightly newsletter highlighting news events of the day, and providing a summary of new articles posted on the website. Econintersect will not sell or pass your email address to others per our privacy policy. You can cancel this subscription at any time by selecting the unsubscribing link in the footer of each email.

posted on 19 November 2016

Why It's Time For A Rethink On Flu Vaccination

from The Conversation

-- this post authored by Derek Gatherer, Lancaster University

I recently had my annual flu shot. Along with all the others who've received it, I'll be hoping that it does the job of preventing me catching flu this winter - or at least reducing the severity of the disease if I do get it. Most years, it works, but occasionally things don't go to plan. Winter 2014-2015's vaccine was considerably less effective than usual and the flu caused 3,000 excess deaths per week in the UK alone in January 2015.

Annual flu vaccine design, manufacture and distribution involves a massive global undertaking but when it goes wrong the consequences can be serious, as we saw in early 2015. The reason this happens every few years is that the influenza virus has evolved to be a cunning vaccine-avoiding machine.

Our immune systems use antibodies - proteins which specifically recognise and bind onto the surfaces of virus particles - to target and destroy the flu before the symptoms get started. But the flu virus can evade our immune systems by shape-shifting its surface structures. Viruses don't do this in any goal-oriented way but achieve it simply by being sloppy in their reproduction, spawning millions of subtle random variants in each infected cell. Most of these are non-functional, but occasionally one will arise which is both functional and has a slightly different surface, rendering it far less "visible" to our immune systems. Then we have a big headache, both literally and metaphorically.

As well as the annual gamble of seasonal vaccine design, we also live with the uncertainty of the next pandemic. When pandemics come along, as in 1918, 1957, 1968, 1977 and 2009, they are usually an entirely new kind of flu virus, resulting from a hybrid between human and pig or bird flu strains. Vaccination to previous subtypes of flu may then be effectively useless. If we think of the shape-shifting variants of seasonal flu having reduced visibility to our immune systems, pandemic strains take it one stage further - they are virtually invisible, with potentially devastating consequences.

Imagine somebody who lives on a Caribbean island and knows that each year will bring storms, but who also knows that very occasionally there will be a hurricane, and that the standard storm drill will be fairly useless when that happens. The storms are seasonal flu, and the hurricanes are the pandemics. We can either simply wait for the big one, shrug our shoulders and see what fate brings, or we can proactively devise a new strategy.

The shape-shifting flu virus. Kateryna Kon/

Universal flu vaccine

One perennial idea has been that we need a universal influenza vaccine - a vaccine that would generate lifelong immunity to all subtypes of flu, including new pandemic strains. This has, however, proved to be technically challenging. Since pandemic strains are effectively invisible to the immunity acquired from contact with seasonal flu, a universal flu vaccine couldn't be anything like our current vaccines.

So universal vaccine designers have been forced to think about vaccines that target other parts of the flu virus, for instance internal proteins. Those don't evolve as fast and have a greater chance of similarity between older strains and new ones. But the problem with this idea is that internal proteins are buried deep inside the virus and therefore the immune system barely gets a look at them. It's a catch-22 situation - the visible targets on the virus surface are unrecognised and potentially more recognisable internal targets are mostly unseen.

Things, however, might be about to change. The revolution in genome sequencing technologies since the turn of the millennium has deepened our knowledge of both flu genomes and the human immune system in three crucial ways.

First, we can now predict with some confidence which parts of those elusive internal targets in the flu virus are likely to generate a reasonably strong immune response. This enables the immune system to make the most out of the fleeting glimpse it gets of flu's internal proteins.

Second, we can also now predict which of those targets have wide distribution among all flu subtypes - including potential future pandemic ones. And third, because knowledge of our own immune systems, at a population level, has also advanced, we can predict how many people are likely to respond to a vaccine made using those internal targets. In isolation, none of these three strategies would be enough, but their synergy could bring universal flu vaccines out of the research wilderness.

Our current seasonal flu vaccination strategy is safe and effective, but only most of the time. It is also very expensive and labour intensive, and provides us with no protection against pandemics. Universal flu vaccines have now reached the stage where they are no longer a hopeful hypothesis but present realistic prospects for success. Come the next pandemic, we may wish we had invested more in them.

The ConversationDerek Gatherer, Lecturer, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

>>>>> Scroll down to view and make comments <<<<<<

Click here for Historical News Post Listing

Make a Comment

Econintersect wants your comments, data and opinion on the articles posted. You can also comment using Facebook directly using he comment block below.

Econintersect Contributors


Print this page or create a PDF file of this page
Print Friendly and PDF

The growing use of ad blocking software is creating a shortfall in covering our fixed expenses. Please consider a donation to Econintersect to allow continuing output of quality and balanced financial and economic news and analysis.

Take a look at what is going on inside of
Main Home
Analysis Blog
Slow Economic Growth Will Be Around For A Long Time
The Job Guarantee, Wage-Price Inflation And Alternative Solutions: Part 2
News Blog
March 2017 Conference Board Consumer Confidence Highest Since 2000
Richmond Fed Manufacturing Survey Again Improves In March 2017.
Case-Shiller 20 City Home Price Index January 2017 Shows 5.7 % Year-over-Year Growth
A Changing Rulebook To Tame The New Global Arms Race
Infographic Of The Day: Chart: Understanding Alphabet's 4 Billion Dollar In "Other Bets"
Early Headlines: Asia Stocks And Dollar Up, Oil, Gold Steady, Obama Climate Policies Gone, US Oil Glut, Euro Surges, Shorts Remain, Trump Into Yemen?, Iran-Russia Deals, Cat 4 Cyclone Hits Oz, And More
March 27, 2017 Weather and Climate Report - Will the MJO Deliver a Nino?
The Most Reputable Companies Worldwide
Gut Bacteria Play A Role In Long-term Weight Gain
What We Read Today 27 March 2017 - Special Public Edition
Is Less More In The Smartphone Market
Average Gasoline Prices for Week Ending 27 March 2017 Statistically Unchanged - Again
What We Read Today 27 March 2017
Investing Blog
The Dollar's Coming Impact On Markets
The Real 401k Plan Manager 27 March 2017
Opinion Blog
Macron May Lead But Le Pen Remains The Big Story
Is The 20th Century Still The 'Hayek Century'?
Precious Metals Blog
These Gold Stocks Will Produce Much Bigger Gains Than Gold Itself
Live Markets
28Mar2017 Pre-Market Commentary: Wall Street Eyes A Lower Opening, Crude Prices Edge Higher, Investors Await Fed Members Clues On Timing Of Next Rate Hike
Amazon Books & More

.... and keep up with economic news using our dynamic economic newspapers with the largest international coverage on the internet
Asia / Pacific
Middle East / Africa
USA Government



Analysis Blog
News Blog
Investing Blog
Opinion Blog
Precious Metals Blog
Markets Blog
Video of the Day


Asia / Pacific
Middle East / Africa
USA Government

RSS Feeds / Social Media

Combined Econintersect Feed

Free Newsletter

Marketplace - Books & More

Economic Forecast

Content Contribution



  Top Economics Site Contributor TalkMarkets Contributor Finance Blogs Free PageRank Checker Active Search Results Google+

This Web Page by Steven Hansen ---- Copyright 2010 - 2017 Econintersect LLC - all rights reserved