The Flu Fighters: Universal vaccines could offer key benefits in large populations

The Flu Fighters: Universal vaccines could offer key benefits in large populations

Every year, people line up to receive the latest flu vaccine, designed to protect against the upcoming season’s most dominant strains of flu virus. Meanwhile, researchers are working to develop “universal” vaccines that protect against most flu strains without the need for seasonal updates.

According to a new study, strategic use of these new vaccines alongside conventional seasonal vaccines could one day help improve flu management in large populations.

“Our work suggests an optimal approach to combining current and novel vaccines that would protect the health of at-risk groups while promoting immune defense of the whole population,” says University of Chicago researcher Rahul Subramanian, who led the study.

Subramanian and his colleagues set out to investigate the potential effects of universal flu vaccines at the level of entire populations — not just in individual patients. To do so, they mathematically modeled the interactions between vaccination, flu transmission, and flu virus evolution into new strains.

“Influenza evolution and epidemiology are fantastically complex processes,” Subramanian says. “We developed a simple mathematical model to capture the essentials of this system.”

The model revealed that the use of universal vaccines in large populations could reduce flu transmission more efficiently than use of conventional vaccines. It could also slow the evolution of new strains of influenza virus and bolster herd immunity, protecting against the emergence of especially dangerous pandemic strains.

Universal vaccines are still in development, and conventional vaccines that are well-matched against seasonally dominant flu strains are likely to continue to play an important role.

Nonetheless, Subramanian says, universal vaccines “could transform the way we manage influenza in the future.”

Citation: Subramanian R, Graham AL, Grenfell BT, Arinaminpathy N (2016) Universal or Specific? A Modeling-Based Comparison of Broad-Spectrum Influenza Vaccines against Conventional, Strain-Matched Vaccines. PLoS Comput Biol 12(12): e1005204. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005204

Image Credit: Kat Masback, Flickr

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Sarah is a San Francisco-based science writer and editor. She covers a wide variety of topics, including Earth science, space science, and cancer.

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