Let’s put it black on white: According to the World Health Organization, each year, up to 650,000 people die from respiratory illnesses related to seasonal flu. This is really terrible because it means that, every year, all the societies of the world wait patiently to be hit by the seasonal epidemic and take more than half a million people.
It is not that they do nothing, understand me well; is that it is not enough. And despite the fact that we have been touching the solution with the tips of our fingers for years… we have not just achieved it. Now the North American NIH believes they have found the universal vaccine against the disease. It’s in human testing and here’s what we know about it.
What happens to us with the flu? It is a question that makes a lot of sense: the scientific community got down to work and was able to find a vaccine against the coronavirus in record time. Why has it failed with something like the flu that we have known about for so long? To answer this, the first thing is to keep in mind that ending a disease is difficult. In fact, throughout the entire history of humanity, we have only been able to eradicate two: smallpox (1980) and rinderpest (2011).
It is not only a matter of financing and technology, diseases have a lot to say. All the “candidates for disappearance” have certain things in common, but the main one is that their natural reservoir is solely and exclusively the human being (or, in the case of diseases such as rinderpest, the animal reservoir is an easily identifiable species). . This means that they are diseases that have difficulties to jump the barriers between species and are easy to follow in open ecosystems.
At least with our technological, health and social development, “we can only assume the eradication of diseases that we can identify, monitor and on which we can intervene on a technically acceptable scale”. And the flu is not in that club: it is a disease with an amazing ability to jump between birds, horses and pigs. Not only that, it is a disease with an amazing ability to generate new subtypes in these animals and then jump back to humans. With this in mind, we can say without fear of being wrong in the near future that the flu is not an eradicable disease.
Can we at least control it?. Yes, but it’s very difficult. And I am not exaggerating: the annual vaccination campaign is one of the most ambitious health programs ever carried out. The World Health Organization has a network of monitoring centers around the world to determine which strains are circulating each year and which have the greatest growth potential. With that information, a vaccine is generated that covers the subtypes that are most likely to become epidemic. But the WHO is wrong and sometimes the predominant subtype is another. In those years, the usual effectiveness of the vaccine is between 40 and 60%, but there are vaccines like the 2008 one with effectiveness below 25%.
In search of the universal vaccine. Finding “influenza vaccines that can provide long-lasting protection against a wide range of seasonal influenza viruses, as well as those with pandemic potential, would be invaluable public health tools.” A very high value, in fact. That seems the only viable alternative to really fight the disease.
Although the truth is that we have not yet managed to materialize. And that we have spent years trying to find some factor of the virus that is stable enough in all subtypes to use with it. We don’t get him.
A candidate who reaches the first division. Or, perhaps it is more interesting to say that we did not find him. Because a team of researchers at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is beginning a phase 1 trial in humans to test a new universal flu vaccine.
BPL-1357, as it has been named, is a multivalent whole virus vaccine that contains inactivated copies of four particular strains of influenza (H1N9, H3N8, H5N1 and H7N3). The intention is to cover the maximum possible spectrum of subtypes and preclinical studies with mice and ferrets have indicated that two doses of the vaccine have been able to protect 100% against fatal doses of six different strains of influenza. Spectacular data that will have to be confirmed in humans.
It’s still early, but there are good feelings. Phase I trials are very small trials (100 people in this case) and their fundamental task is to know if the drug can go to phase 2. It is a slow path and it is not the first universal vaccine that reaches human trials for take a hit However, there are good feelings: we are talking about a solid technological approach and the data is promising. All that remains is to cross your fingers and hope that science and technology “do their magic”.
Image | Steven Cornfield
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