How To Build A Better Flu Vaccine (HBO)

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The U.S. is in the midst of a record breaking flu season this year that is reaching levels as high as the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

On a call with reporters last week, the CDC Acting Director Dr. Anne Schuchat painted a grim picture of what the rest of the flu season has in store— and there's no sign this season is slowing down yet.

Predicting what flu strains will be circulating each year and what should be included in the annual vaccine is highly a choreographed decision that involves year round monitoring of influenza viruses across the globe.

Dr. Kathryn Edwards has spent over thirty years studying influenza and is the chair of the FDA committee that selects the strains. She says a particularly severe strain of influenza A called H3N2 may be why more people are getting so sick this year.

“We also know that the severity of an influenza season can depend not only on the virus but also on how well the vaccine that we are giving people matches the strain that's circulating,” Edwards says.

There’s also evidence that the way the majority of vaccines are made, by growing the virus in chicken eggs, can cause changes in the H3N2 strain that ultimately weaken the vaccines effectiveness.

There are two types of non egg-based vaccines on the market and studies are underway to try and understand which work best. The jackpot though would be the development of a successful universal vaccine.

Calling it a universal vaccine is somewhat of a misnomer because researchers are skeptical that one shot will ever give lifelong protection against the flu but the idea is that a shot could be given at any time and offer years worth of protection against all flu strains including potential influenza pandemics. More than 30 candidates are in various stages of testing with a few already in the early stages of human trials.

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