Universal Flu Vaccine Awaiting Third Trial Phase

June 30, 2020 Updated: June 30, 2020

After more than a decade, researchers have developed a universal flu vaccine that they hope may provide longer-term protection against many different influenza strains, eliminating the need for yearly shots.

Known as the FLU-v, the universal influenza vaccine developed by London-based vaccine manufacturer Seek (or PepTCell Limited) was shown to “promote antibody responses and immune system changes among 175 healthy adults” in a human challenge trial, according to ScienceAlert.

FLU-v differs from the current flu vaccines by targeting an area of the influenza virus that doesn’t change often. It also contains “four different components against four different regions of the flu virus,” scientific officer at Seek and lead researcher Olga Pleguezuelos said. “So if one changed, three will still provide efficacy.”

As of March, the company has been waiting to begin its phase 3 trial in the United States to test the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. Seek did not reply to The Epoch Times’s request to confirm whether the trial has begun.

Mutating Viruses, Low Vaccine Efficacy

Influenza is an acute viral infection of the respiratory system caused by three types of flu viruses: A, B, and C. Classic symptoms of the flu can be mild or severe, and it is characterized by the sudden onset of a fever, sore throat, and muscle aches.

The multiple strains of influenza viruses often mutate rapidly and develop new strains “from one season to the next” or “even change within the course of one flu season,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), making it challenging for scientists to predict which strain will emerge each flu season.

This often causes the annual influenza vaccine to be rather ineffective, especially when the flu strains in the vaccine do not match the circulating virus, which is one of the reasons why the vaccine is given yearly.

Researchers are hoping that FLU-v may be able to resolve this vaccine effectiveness issue.

A woman suffering from flu. (Shutterstock)
A woman suffering from flu. (Shutterstock)

But some scientists say that the universal flu vaccine may be “more challenging than expected,” according to a Scripps Research study of the virus’s mutation. The study found that “one of the most common flu subtypes, H3N2, can mutate relatively easily to escape two antibodies that were thought to block nearly all flu strains.”

With the universal flu vaccine needing several more years for testing, health officials decided in February on the virus strains to be used in the upcoming flu vaccine, so that pharmaceutical companies will have time to make them available in the Northern Hemisphere by August.

According to the CDC, around 162 to 169 million doses of the flu vaccine for the 2019-2020 season were only 45 percent effective—slightly higher than the previous year’s effectiveness of 29 percent.

Yet with its low efficacy, the CDC and doctors still recommend that everyone aged 6 months and older get the flu shot.

“It’s true that vaccine effectiveness varies from year to year, but vaccination decreases your chance of contracting influenza by an estimated 40-60 percent,” Dr. Kelly Curtin, a pediatrician who is an adviser to Parenting Pod, wrote in an email to The Epoch Times. “Even if you do contract the virus, the vaccine can reduce the severity of your symptoms.”

However, Curtin says that people with “a history of severe life-threatening allergies to the flu vaccine or any of its ingredients” or children under 6 months should not get the flu shot.

Opponents of the flu vaccine say that the risks may not outweigh the benefit.

“There is little to no benefit from influenza vaccines, and if you take them every year, there are studies that show you may become more vulnerable to other infections,” Dr. Joseph Mercola, a natural health activist, wrote in an email to The Epoch Times.

In a 2013-2016 study funded by the CDC to assess if vaccinated participants experienced an increase in acute respiratory illness (ARI) in the “post-influenza vaccination periods,” researchers found that in children who became sick after vaccination had an increased “risk of ARI caused by non-influenza respiratory pathogens” for two weeks after vaccination compared to those who were unvaccinated during that same period.

Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, said in an email to The Epoch Times, “Vaccines are pharmaceutical products that carry two risks: the risk of an adverse reaction and a risk that the vaccine will fail to protect against infection and transmission of the disease it was designed to prevent.”

Scientists have noted that even if the strains in the vaccine are well-matched with the virus spreading in the population, the vaccine may still not induce an immune response to the flu virus and not protect the person.

Flu Vaccine Injury Most Compensated

Mercola also says that flu vaccine injuries “are the most compensated of all claims in the federal Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP).”

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, the VICP has paid out about $4.3 billion to vaccine-injured petitioners (pdf), and “73 percent of petitions filed in the last two fiscal years” claimed injury from the flu vaccine, with over 54 percent alleging shoulder injury relating to vaccine administration (SIRVA) (pdf).

flu vaccine
A flu vaccine is administered to a patient at a health clinic in Chicago on Sept. 26, 2002. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

The VICP was set up two years after Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act in 1986 to protect vaccine supplies and allow parents of vaccine-injured children to file a claim for compensation as an alternative to the civil courts.

Unfortunately, the act that was supposed to easily compensate individuals injured by a vaccine listed on the vaccine injury table (pdf) fairly and expeditiously, has over the years been amended to instead protect vaccine manufacturers from lawsuits, particularly after the 2011 Supreme Court decision (pdf) that declared that vaccines were “unavoidably unsafe.”

After SIRVA was added to the vaccine injury table in 2017, more adults filed for compensation, making up 90 percent of petitions filed in the VICP in the last two years. Although the compensation program is set up for children injured by vaccines, the flu vaccine given to children and adults is the same, so adults may also file a petition for compensation under the program.

Today, the vaccine industry is a $35 billion business, according to AB Bernstein, reported CNBC, with four big manufacturers dominating around 85 percent of the market—Merck, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi. The flu vaccine market is estimated to be more than $4 billion globally in 2019 and is projected to reach $6.2 billion by 2026, according to Allied Market Research.

Flu Deaths

There are concerns that the CDC may be overestimating the actual number of flu deaths.

The CDC estimates yearly “influenza-associated deaths” (implying influenza as an underlying cause of death) in the tens of thousands by using “a mathematical model” that includes deaths from influenza, pneumonia, and circulatory or respiratory illnesses after being sick with the flu.

The CDC also does not base its “seasonal flu mortality” on death certificates that list influenza, claiming that influenza deaths are under-reported.

The actual number of deaths from the flu itself is unknown since influenza deaths are not reported to the CDC, except for children under 18.