April 25 - Spurred by the ongoing outbreak of the deadly H7N9 influenza in China, scientific teams around the world are engaged in an intensive effort to find a durable, long-lasting vaccine, not just for H7N9, but for all forms of pandemic and seasonal flu. Armed with new technologies, researchers in the United States are guardedly optimistic, reporting positive results with universal vaccine concepts that appear to work in animal and human models. Rob Muir reports.
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Dr Anthony Fauci and his team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' are on a mission. They want to produce a vaccine that will protect humans against all forms of influenza all the time.
The H7N9 outbreak in China is adding urgency to the efforts, but finding a universal vaccine is a time-consuming project.
Influenza viruses are moving targets, mutating from year to year, so for seasonal strains, today's vaccines have limited impact.
SOUNDBITE (English) DR ANTHONY FAUCI - DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES, SAYING: "We need to have a vaccine that, when you vaccinate somebody, maybe it's more than once, but you might vaccinate them now and maybe a couple of years from now and even every year, that you don't have to change it from year to year. You can actually make it, and you can put it on the shelf and have it ready for any emergence of a slight change as you would see with seasonal flu or a big change as you would see with pandemic flu."
Through genomic research of virus types, scientists believe they're on the right path.
With current vaccines, the immune system produces antibodies that attack protein spikes on the virus, preventing them from penetrating healthy cells and causing infections. It's
these spikes that mutate, until the immune system no longer recognises the virus as an enemy. The virus can then bond easily with sugars on the surface of the cell and infect it.
But scientists have found a part of the spike, coloured yellow, that does not mutate, that could be targetted by a universal vaccine and is common to all influenza strains.
The Institiute's Dr Barney Graham says technology will hold the key to discovery.
SOUNDBITE (English DR BARNEY GRAHAM - CHIEF, VIRAL PATHOGENESIS LABORATORY, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES, SAYING: "The new technologies and new ways of building vaccine molecules and antigens allow us to be in a position to have a breakthrough."
SOUNDBITE (English) DR ANTHONY FAUCI - DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES, SAYING: "You're going to have multiple iterations of a universal flu vaccine. I can tell you for sure from experience that you're not going to have 'oops, one univeral flu vaccine and the ball game is over', you're going to have one that's pretty good, then another one that's a little bit better and then, after a period of time, you're going to get a really good one. It always works that way in science."
Dr Fauci says he can't answer questions about when that "really good one might be available."
He says a vaccine concept had been proven to work in animal models in the lab, but the day when it can be demonstrated to protect people from deadly strains like H7N9, or any seasonal flu, is still years away.
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