Could we be on the verge of the development of a universal flu vaccine? That is the potential promise of a recent discovery that in some test subjects last year’s H1N1 virus (swine flu) infection has produced antibodies which are effective against not only future H1N1 infections but also against the deadly H5N1 bird flu, the past decade’s seasonal flues and even the killer 1918 Spanish Flu which killed upwards of 100 million people.
This discovery of super immunity is an extremely unusual and hopeful development because, as we all know, each seasonal flu strain is different and we need new vaccinations each year to prevent infection. Even worse, it takes time to develop and produce enough vaccine and sometimes epidemiologists make a wrong guess about which strain will be the most active in a given year.
The discovery of this super immunity was made by Dr. Patrick Wilson University of Chicago) who was a lead researcher into the H1N1 flu strain which infected 60+ million individuals last year.
The original report was published in JEM, the Journal of Experimental Medicine, “Broadly cross-reactive antibodies dominate the human B cell response against 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza virus infection,” January 10, 2010 (available online only to subscribers).
Researchers have long felt that it might be possible to develop a universal flu vaccine but made little progress. This discovery of super antibodies created by people with H1N1 will spur efforts to develop a new vaccine which could be effective against many, if not all new and existing flu strains.
The BBC reported several years ago (2008) that a team working under Dr. Sarah Gilbert at Oxford University were testing a potential universal flu vaccine using a weak smallpox virus to carry proteins which would trigger an immune response to any flu infection, but those tests haven’t resulted in a usable vaccine to date.
The discovery by Dr. Wilson may indicate a new approach and even that those who caught H1N1 last year may all now have some sort of super immunity which could provide some protection against the highly dangerous H5N1 bird flu.