Skip to main content
Move the World.
The First Universal Flu Vaccine Could Be Coming Soon

Flu season isn't even over, but medical researchers already need to start thinking about next year's vaccine, an annual race to head off the next flu outbreak. But scientists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai may have found a solution: a universal flu vaccine that will protect against all variants of influenza. Year after year. For life.

No one looks forward to the yearly flu shot. Why can't the flu vaccine be a one-and-done vaccination, such as those that protect against common viruses like measles, hepatitis, or polio? The answer lies in the rapid pace at which the flu virus naturally mutates.

"It's ... really the only virus that is common to man that changes so consistently from season to season," says National Institutes of Health (NIH) immunologist Anthony Fauci, "which is the reason why it is the only virus that afflicts man that you have to get an updated vaccine virtually every year. That's really unprecedented except for influenza."

“I think there's a misperception about flu... The flu is potentially a serious disease.”

Anthony FauciNational Institutes of Health Immunologist

The virus particle itself is covered with proteins, like tiny broccolis sprouting from the surface. The proteins, called hemagglutinin, play an essential role in helping the flu virus infect the human cell. They have two parts: the head and the stem. The protein head is undergoing constant genetic drift, meaning it mutates and changes yearly. But the stem remains stable.

The flu virus is covered in tiny proteins called hemagglutinin, which play an essential role in helping the flu virus infect the human cell. Photo provided by Adolfo Garcia-Sastre.

The flu virus is covered in tiny proteins called hemagglutinin, which play an essential role in helping the flu virus infect the human cell. Photo provided by Adolfo Garcia-Sastre.

Current flu vaccines cause the body to create antibodies that target the protein head. The antibodies act as the body's army by recognizing and neutralizing foreign substances, like the hemagglutinin protein.

But the head's ability to mutate rapidly may be the flu's most powerful defense. By the time flu season is over, the vaccine is outdated, and researchers are already trying to predict in advance the molecular structure of next year's virus.

Microbiologist Adolfo García-Sastre and his team at Mount Sinai are trying to figure out a work-around. Instead of focusing on the hemagglutinin protein head, they are looking for something in the virus's structure that doesn't change year to year, such as the stem.

If they can create a robust immune response against the stem of that protein, which doesn't evolve as much, then they could create a universal flu vaccine. Laboratories across the country are taking a similar approach.

Garcia-Sastre's team may be close. By using genome sequencing, they took a close look at the molecular structure of influenza and created a vaccine to target the stem. So far, in multiple animal models, their vaccine has been successful, providing a long-lasting immune response. Now the team is moving to Phase I and II of clinical trials — first proving it is safe, then determining the flu vaccine effectiveness.

Garcia-Sastre with his team at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. They are working on a universal flu vaccine that will provide long-term protection against all variants of influenza. Photo provided by Adolfo Garcia-Sastre.

Garcia-Sastre with his team at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. They are working on a universal flu vaccine that will provide long-term protection against all variants of influenza. Photo provided by Adolfo Garcia-Sastre.

"I think there's a misperception about flu," says Fauci, that the virus is not a big deal. "The flu is potentially a serious disease."

The disease burden of the flu is nothing to make light of. The CDC reports that during the 2017-2018 flu season, there were 61,000 influenza-associated deaths in the United States and 808,129 hospitalizations. The people most at-risk for complications are the elderly, pregnant women, and young children. The problem is exacerbated in countries where people have limited access to flu vaccines or medical care. Garcia-Sastre says that a universal flu vaccine would make a substantial public health and economic impact.

"The vaccine that we have is the first one that is able to use antibodies against multiple subtypes of influenza virus. There is no other vaccine that has been able to do that," Garcia-Sastre says.

The next step is to prove the antibody levels in his universal flu vaccine are enough to protect against the flu. He expects that they will test this in the final phase of clinical trials in about five years. If all goes according to plan, the yearly flu shot will be a thing of the past.

Up Next

Superhuman
The Exoskeleton Marathon Racer
The Exoskeleton Marathon Racer
Watch Now
Superhuman
The Exoskeleton Marathon Racer
How do you bounce back from a life-changing car accident? Adam Gorlitsky decided he would break a world record.
Watch Now

How do you bounce back from a life-changing car accident? Adam Gorlitsky decided he would break a world record. In a weird way, it’s a good time to be paralyzed Adam Gorlitsky Adam was paralyzed from the waist down in a terrible wreck and thought his track and field days were over. But once approved for an experimental exoskeleton, he...

The "Search Angel" Volunteers Reunite Birth Families
The "Search Angel" Volunteers Reunite Birth Families
Watch Now
The "Search Angel" Volunteers Reunite Birth Families
For some, not knowing their biological family can feel like a part of them is missing. The Search Squad is helping them for free.
Watch Now

These people are meeting biological relatives for the first time, thanks to a group of volunteers. The Search Squad group on Facebook has around 100 volunteer “search angels” who scour birth records and websites to find the birth relatives of adoptees. Many people who were adopted as children would like to meet their birth relatives, but it can often be an extremely expensive and time-consuming process. Search Squad, on...

INTEL
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Watch Now
INTEL
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Genomic sequencing saved his live. Now he wants everyone to have access.
Watch Now

After he was diagnosed with life-threatening prostate cancer, Intel’s Bryce Olson sequenced his genome which offered clues to new treatments for his disease. While the current standard of care for cancer patients includes surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, genetic sequencing opens the door for new possibilities beyond these traditional approaches. Bryce explains his personal mission to encourage others to get their...

Superhuman
Hunting Down His Son’s Killer
Hunting Down His Son’s Killer
Watch Now
Superhuman
Hunting Down His Son’s Killer
For years, there was no diagnosis, no treatment, and no cure — because his son's disease had never been seen before. That wasn't going to stop this dad.
Watch Now

What do you do when there are no experts to turn to? For computer scientist Matt Might, the answer was obvious: you become the expert. When doctors couldn't figure out his son's disease, he found a way to crack the code. Matt's son, Bertrand, suffers from an extremely rare genetic disease, called NGLY1 deficiency, which causes chronic seizures, liver problems, and developmental delays. In fact, it was so rare that Bertrand...

Dispatches
Scientists Want to Rewrite the Entire Human Genome, from Scratch
Scientists Want to Rewrite the Entire Human Genome, from Scratch
Dispatches
Scientists Want to Rewrite the Entire Human Genome, from Scratch
What if we could rewrite our entire genetic code to make us invincible against viruses?

What if we could rewrite our entire genetic code to make us invincible against viruses?

Coded
Hacker Hero Arrested by FBI
Hacker Hero Arrested by FBI
Watch Now
Coded
Hacker Hero Arrested by FBI
Was MalwareTech just doing research to stop criminal activity or engaging in criminal activity himself?
Watch Now

Why This Hacker Was Arrested The super-secretive hacker known as MalwareTech became famous when he dismantled the WannaCry computer virus, one of the most alarming privacy threats in recent memory. But the praise was cut short when the hacker was arrested by the FBI for creating a virus that gave digital thieves access to people’s banking credentials. Was he just doing research to stop criminal activity or engaging in...

Science
A Regulatory Fight Is Brewing Over Experimental Stem Cell Therapies
A Regulatory Fight Is Brewing Over Experimental Stem Cell Therapies
Science
A Regulatory Fight Is Brewing Over Experimental Stem Cell Therapies
New proposed regulations from the FDA would effectively shut down private stem cell clinics in the U.S.
By Mike Riggs

New proposed regulations from the FDA would effectively shut down private stem cell clinics in the U.S.