Is a New and Improved Flu Vaccine on the Way?

Modernizing the flu shot


October 24, 2019 

The unpopular flu shot

You’ve probably seen the signs, or read the social media posts or heard the commercials: it’s time to get your flu shot. But you’re also probably familiar with the complaint: people who get flu shots can still get the flu, but the symptoms aren’t as severe. Well, take heart. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is leading a massive national effort to improve and modernize flu shots. And the Duke Human Vaccine Institute is part of the effort. It just received three research contracts from NIAID, with an initial award of roughly $29.6 million to help with the effort. If all of the options on the contracts are picked up, total funding could top $400 million over seven years, making it the largest federal multi-contract award supporting one program in Duke’s history.

Duke's effort to improve the flu vaccine

YDuke is the only institution to receive a contract to work on all three phases of the vaccine project. “The Duke Human Vaccine Institute has established a niche working on very difficult vaccines and scientific problems that are not easily solvable outside the context of team science,” said Barton Haynes, M.D., director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI). “Our experience in HIV and in other vaccines leads directly to our being able to join the universal flu vaccine effort and impact it immediately."

The Duke team will study the three major aspects of a possible universal flu vaccine:
1. design and evaluate influenza vaccine approaches
2. manufacture and evaluate the safety and toxicity of vaccine platforms
3. conduct clinical trials for influenza vaccines

Current flu vaccines do not protect against all varieties of the virus and require new formulations each year. The vaccine is designed to protect against specific strains of the flu, which are based on predictions of what is likely to be circulating during flu season. A more universally protective vaccine could cut the toll of influenza, which kills 300,000 to 500,000 people worldwide each year and causes up to five million cases of severe infection, which can result in costly hospitalizations.

In addition to researching HIV and influenza, investigators at the DHVI conduct research to develop vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for tuberculosis, malaria, Ebola, cytomegalovirus, and the Zika flavivirus.

—Frank Graff 

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.