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Why another flu pandemic is likely just a matter of when
Influenza is a shape-shifter virus that could spark a global pandemic. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health are working to deliver what is referred to as The Holy Grail in the fight: a universal flu vaccine that could protect against all strains of the virus. William Brangham concludes our pandemics series by learning what it will take to develop a universal vaccine.
We conclude our series on the fight against influenza examining what many people believe is the best potential weapon against the disease: a universal vaccine that would protect against not just a few strains of the virus, but possibly all of them.
William Brangham has the latest on this potentially game-changing research.
The saying goes: Know your enemy. So, when it comes to an enemy like influenza, researchers at the Vaccine Research Center are getting up close and personal with the virus.
Dr. Michelle Crank:
So this is the site in yellow…
Using virtual reality, this team, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, has enlarged influenza over 200 million times its normal size to search inside for the best line of attack.
Dr. Barney Graham:
And this is actually where the virus binds to a human cell, in pink.
To those who've spent decades in this field, like Dr. Barney Graham, these new tools are a big leap forward.
To me, the really amazing part of this is that, when I came to this center 20 years ago, we were just dissolving flu viruses and injecting them and hoping for the best. And now we can actually see what we're doing.
They want to design a better weapon against flu. The Holy Grail is what's called the universal influenza vaccine, a shot that would protect against all known and unknown strains of the virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He says these new techniques may finally make this potent tool a reality.
Several years ago, I wouldn't have been able to give you even an approximation of when that would be, because the science wasn't giving us the clues that we could actually do that.
Now, with these exquisite techniques of structure-based vaccine design, I think we are in shooting distance, as it were.
As it stands now, every year, public health officials manufacture a flu vaccine to target what they predict will be the next seasonal flu virus strains to spread around the world. That's what goes into our yearly flu shot.
Dr. Jeremy Brown:
The reason that it must be given every year is that the virus itself mutates, and it's unrecognizable often from one year to the next.
Dr. Jeremy Brown studies emergency medicine at the National Institutes of Health, and wrote the book "Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History."
Brown points out there's no other virus we have to keep vaccinating against year after year. Not polio, not mumps, not rubella. Only influenza.
This shape-shifter of a virus is the thing that keeps everybody on their toes. Because you can be looking at one virus and produce a vaccine for it, and unbeknownst to everybody, even with the best science that we have out there, unbeknownst to everybody, the virus changes just a little bit, it becomes unrecognizable to the immune system, and does its damage.
And that vaccine from the prior strain is worthless.
And vaccine from the prior strain is worthless against that new strain.
Not only does seasonal flu change, but every now and then, a brand-new so-called novel strain emerges. And that's what has the potential to create a deadly global flu pandemic.
One of these novel strains is what killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people back in 1918. The Spanish Flu is considered the worst natural disaster in recorded human history. It's what public health officials worry could happen again today.
We have got to be able to have something that, when a new pandemic virus emerges, we already have something ready on the shelf to do something about it. Something that you could make, and it would be usable so that, when you stockpile it, it really is a stockpile.
This part of the virus doesn't change.
To do that, Fauci says, they have to develop a vaccine that targets a section of the flu virus that doesn't shift from strain to strain, one that presents a more consistent target.
That's the whole strategy of the universal flu vaccine. And even when it makes a big change to become a pandemic, that that vaccine will be good against any iteration of the virus.
Just last month, the National Institutes of Health began human trials of their latest universal flu vaccine.
Just relax your muscle.
Study volunteers receive a dose of the prototype. Researchers will later monitor their blood to see if their immune systems react and develop a strong defense.
You did great.
But Anthony Fauci says we still have a long way to go.
Are we completely prepared so that, if we get a pandemic flu, we're going to be OK? No. If we get a pandemic flu, we will do much better than we would have done years ago, but we're not going to be OK. We're not going to be OK.
Preliminary results from the universal vaccine trials will be coming soon.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Jason Kane is a PBS NewsHour producer, focusing on health care and national affairs.
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