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Amid a deadly season, the race is on to outsmart an ever-mutating flu virus


by Cynthia Koons and Ivan Levingston (Bloomberg News)
PITTSBURGH, PA, March 2, 2018 – The only thing worse than getting the flu is catching it after you’ve gotten a flu shot. It’s been a terrible year for outbreaks – the worst in almost a decade. Contributing to that is the high failure rate of this year’s vaccine. The current shot is just 25 percent effective against the H3N2 virus, this season’s most-often-identified strain by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The experts say, with enough time and money, they can do a lot better.
“There has to be a wholesale change to how we make the flu vaccine,” said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “We’re always setting ourselves up for vaccine mismatch and failures and the like because of the lead time in how long it takes the vaccines to be made.”
Drug companies and public-health agencies are already grappling with the challenge of next year and beyond. Officials must decide several months ahead of flu season the make-up of the year’s vaccine. Flu shots are typically 40 percent to 60 percent effective in any given season, though this year fell short of that mark. The ultimate goal is a universal vaccine that would operate more like a measles inoculation than a vaccine targeted at a handful of strains of flu. The idea is to offer something closer to 90 percent protection against a disease for years – if not for life – with a single vaccine.
It’s still early days. And out-maneuvering the stealthy, ever-mutating flu virus is about as tricky as it gets. There are hundreds of different viruses, and seasonal vaccines protect only against the three or four that researchers think will be the most common that season, creating an ever-moving target for public-health experts. The current epidemic has provided a new sense of urgency to push ahead. Leading the charge from Big Pharma are drugmaking giants, including GlaxoSmithKline PLC, Sanofi SA and Johnson & Johnson.
Sanofi, the world’s biggest flu-vaccine maker, signed a deal with SK Chemicals Co. in February to advance the development of a universal vaccine. John Shiver, senior vice president of global vaccines research and development at Sanofi Pasteur, says it’s hard for the scientific community to move away from the existing technologies to create a new one, in part because those have been relatively successful over the past 70 years.
Recently though, some new research leads have turned up potentially promising approaches. One that Sanofi already uses relies on cell cultures, rather than eggs, to develop vaccines because some viruses do not reproduce as well in eggs. That was a problem, for instance, with this year’s vaccine against the H3N2 strain, some experts maintain. Scientists have also developed ways to use what’s known as recombinant DNA technology in the production of cell-based vaccines. That allows them to find individual genes on a virus that are more likely to stimulate an immune response, cut them out, and insert them into the genome of another organism to make a more successful vaccine.
Even using such advanced techniques, a flu vaccine with 90 percent effectiveness may be beyond reach, given the scientific challenges of targeting the virus over time. Shiver imagines that even a universal shot, were it to be successfully developed, would have to be constantly tweaked.
“We don’t know the best way to produce them, which is why, at Sanofi Pasteur, we’ve been accumulating technology for flexibility,” he said.
Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen research group is also doing pre-clinical work on a universal vaccine. “New innovations for influenza are urgently needed,” said Julian Symons, research and development leader of respiratory infections.
GlaxoSmithKline, another leading vaccine developer, is conducting one of the first studies of a universal flu vaccine in humans. The shot is based on research directed in part by Peter Palese, the chair of microbiology at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York. Unlike current vaccines that target constantly changing proteins on the surface of the flu virus, Palese’s approach targets a part of the virus that remains relatively stable from year to year. Glaxo is lending expertise in boosting the immune response through vaccination. (-

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