New mRNA vaccine for flu and COVID-19 enters human trials 

Pfizer and BioNTech’s new shot could protect you against both diseases at once.

Pfizer and BioNTech are trialing a new mRNA vaccine designed to protect against COVID-19 and the flu — and if it works, it could make getting vaccinated more convenient.

The challenge: In September 2022, the CDC recommended that everyone over the age of five get a new COVID-19 booster targeting the original and Omicron strains of the virus — but as of October 27, 92% of eligible people still hadn’t gotten the booster, and 15% weren’t vaccinated at all.

Meanwhile, the flu season is well underway in the US, and about 60% of people who are eligible for a flu vaccine still haven’t gotten one.

Why it matters: Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 or the flu, but it’s also important beyond the individual level.

By getting vaccinated, you help stem the spread of these viruses to people who can’t get the shots because they’re too young or have health conditions. Getting vaccinated also helps relieve the burden of the illnesses on healthcare workers and the economy.

By simplifying the immunization process, a combination vaccine could lead to better vaccine uptake for COVID-19 and the flu.

Punch combo: Making vaccination for both the flu and COVID-19 as convenient as possible could potentially increase vaccination rates for both, so Pfizer and BioNTech are now trialing a new mRNA vaccine designed to protect against both viruses.

“We think [this combination vaccine] could simplify immunization practices against these two respiratory pathogens, potentially leading to better vaccine uptake for both diseases,” said Annaliesa Anderson, head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer.

Experts say you can safely get the Omicron booster and flu shot at the same time, but that means two injections in one visit, which nobody loves, and many people are still hesitant about it. Only 32% of respondents in a recent survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases were confident that getting both shots at once is safe.

Looking ahead: Pfizer and BioNTech’s new mRNA vaccine combines the companies’ authorized Omicron booster with their flu vaccine candidate, qIRV (22/23), which is already being studied in a phase 3 trial.

The first of the 180 healthy adults expected to enroll in the phase 1 trial has already been dosed. The goal is to evaluate the combo vaccine’s safety, tolerability, and ability to provoke an immune response, as well as identify the optimal dose. The study will cover 6 months of follow-up.

We could start manufacturing flu shots closer to flu season, when we’re better able to predict which strains will dominate.

mRNA FTW: The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the power of mRNA vaccines — not only can they be highly effective, they can also be manufactured more quickly than other types of vaccines, including the kind traditionally used for flu shots (inactivated viruses that first have to be grown in chicken eggs).

This speed means we could start manufacturing flu shots closer to flu season, when we’re better able to predict which strains will dominate, rather than six to nine months before like we have to do today. Including protection against the latest COVID-19 variant in the shot could be a bonus.

Triple threat: Moderna — the other pioneer of mRNA vaccines — is taking this idea a step further, testing a new mRNA vaccine that protects against the flu, COVID-19, and RSV — another respiratory virus that can be particularly dangerous for seniors and children.  

A phase 1 trial of that combination vaccine is expected to launch before the end of 2022, and it could be ready for the public in as few as three years, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told CNN.

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