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A universal flu vaccine could finally be within sight

November 18, 2019


JUDY WOODRUFF: We conclude our series on the
fight against influenza examining what many people believe is the best potential weapon
against the disease: a universal vaccine that would protect against not just a few strains
of the virus, but possibly all of them. William Brangham has the latest on this potentially
game-changing research. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The saying goes, know your
enemy, so, when it comes to an enemy like influenza, researchers at the Vaccine Research
Center are getting up close and personal with the virus. WOMAN: So this is the site in yellow. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Using virtual reality, this
team, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, has enlarged influenza over 200
million times its normal size to search inside for the best line of attack. WOMAN: And this is actually where the virus
binds to a human cell, in pink. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: To those who’ve spent decades
in this field, like Dr. Barney Graham, these new tools are a big leap forward. DR. BARNEY GRAHAM, Deputy Director, Vaccine Research
Center: To me, the really amazing part of this is that, when I came to this center 20
years ago, we were just dissolving flu viruses and injecting them and hoping for the best. And now we can actually see what we’re doing. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: They want to design a better
weapon against flu. The Holy Grail is what’s called the universal
influenza vaccine, a shot that would protect against all known and unknown strains of the
virus. Dr. Anthony Fauci heads the National Institute
of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He says these new techniques may finally make
this potent tool a reality. DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, Director, National Institute
of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: Several years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to give
you even an approximation of when that would be, because the science wasn’t giving us the
clues that we could actually do that. Now, with these exquisite techniques of structure-based
vaccine design, I think we are in shooting distance, as it were. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As it stands now, every
year, public health officials manufacture a flu vaccine to target what they predict
will be the next seasonal flu virus strains to spread around the world. That’s what goes into our yearly flu shot. DR. JEREMY BROWN, National Institutes of Health:
The reason that it must be given every year is that the virus itself mutates, and it’s
unrecognizable often from one year to the next. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dr. Jeremy Brown studies
emergency medicine at the National Institutes of Health, and wrote the book “Influenza:
The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History.” Brown points out there’s no other virus we
have to keep vaccinating against year after year, not polio, not mumps, not rubella, only
influenza. DR. JEREMY BROWN: This shape-shifter of a virus
is the thing, a , that keeps everybody on their toes, because you can be looking at
one virus and produce a vaccine for it, and unbeknownst to everybody, even with the best
science that we have out there, unbeknownst to everybody, the virus changes just a little
bit, it becomes unrecognizable to the immune system, and does its damage. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And that vaccine from the
prior strain is worthless. DR. JEREMY BROWN: And vaccine from the prior strain
is worthless against that new strain. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Not only does seasonal flu
change, but every now and then, a brand-new so-called novel strain emerges. And that’s what has the potential to create
a deadly global flu pandemic. One of these novel strains is what killed
an estimated 50 to 100 million people back in 1918. The Spanish Flu is considered the worst natural
disaster in recorded human history. It’s what public health officials worry could
happen again today. DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: We have got to be able to have
something that, when a new pandemic virus emerges, we already have something ready on
the shelf to do something about it, something that you could make, and it would be usable
so that, when you stockpile it, it really is a stockpile. This part of the virus doesn’t change. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: To do that, Fauci says,
they have to develop a vaccine that targets a section of the flu virus that doesn’t shift
from strain to strain, one that presents a more consistent target. DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: That’s the whole strategy of
the universal flu vaccine. And even when it makes a big change to become
a pandemic, that that vaccine will be good against any iteration of the virus. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Just last month, the National
Institutes of Health began human trials of their latest universal flu vaccine. MAN: Just relax your muscle. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Study volunteers receive
a dose of the prototype. Researchers will later monitor their blood
to see if their immune systems react and develop a strong defense. MAN: You did great. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Anthony Fauci says we
still have a long way to go. DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Are we completely prepared
so that, if we get a pandemic flu, we’re going to be OK? No. If we get a pandemic flu, we will do much
better than we would have done years ago, but we’re not going to be OK. We’re not going to be OK. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Preliminary results from
the universal vaccine trials will be coming soon. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham.

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