A Universal Flu Vaccine May Be on the Way

Imagine a day when you won’t need a new flu shot each fall.

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You’ve had to get the flu vaccine every single year, and let’s be honest: Some years, it’s less effective than others. Researchers understand your frustration, and they’re hoping to revolutionize the flu vaccine soon.

In September 2019, the National Institutes of Health announced a new initiative for a “universal” flu vaccine—that is, a vaccine that lasts longer and is more broadly protective against various flu strains.

The project, known as the Collaborative Influenza Vaccine Innovation Centers (CIVICs) program, consists of a network of multidisciplinary researchers to research, test, and develop a novel approach to the flu vaccine. The CIVICs program aims to combat seasonal influenza throughout the world to prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths each year.

How the Flu Vaccine Works

Currently, experts have to predict which flu strains will reign each year. There are technically four types—influenza A, B, C, and D—but influenza D is not known to affect humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additionally, the types of influenza can be broken down further into different subtypes, strains, and lineages. For example, the infamous H1N1 virus from the 2009 flu outbreak refers to a specific subtype of influenza A.

What makes things tricky is that the most prevalent flu strain changes from year to year, and the viruses are constantly undergoing genetic changes. This requires experts to create a new vaccine each year to target the strains they believe will cause the most disturbance that flu season. While this system has saved many lives, it’s imperfect: The vaccine might not be an exact match against the circulating flu virus that season, or other unexpected strains may emerge.

Learn more facts about the flu here.

The Benefits of a Universal Flu Vaccine

Researchers hope the CIVICs program can create a universal flu vaccine that can address the flaws of the current influenza vaccine system. With better protection, Americans will be less vulnerable to the influenza virus, and the country may see fewer hospitalizations and deaths. This will also take some burden away from the healthcare system.

If the flu vaccine is effective for longer, it also increases the chances that more people will be protected on any given year, since many people fail to consistently get their flu shot each year.

And finally, more people may simply be more motivated to get their flu shot if they know it’s more effective and longer-lasting. Either way, better vaccination rates promote herd immunity, which is when so many people are vaccinated that the virus can’t effectively spread. This protects those with compromised immune systems.

It may still be years before a potential universal flu vaccine arrives: The CIVICs program is a seven-year project, after all. Until then, your annual flu shot is still your best bet to prevent the flu. (Here are other vaccines you should still be getting in adulthood.)