A Universal Vaccine Against All Strains Is Coming

A new, RNA-based vaccine strategy would eliminate the need to update flu and other vaccines each season and could be used to immunize babies under six months of age.

Influenza vaccines are reformulated each year to protect against the four main groups of flu viruses that are most likely to be prevalent in the upcoming season. COVID-19 vaccines are also constantly updated to catch up with new dominant strains.

The new vaccine strategy, developed by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, targets a part of the viral genome that is common to all virus strains.

A trial published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the vaccine can effectively mount an immune response in mice.

If found to be safe and effective in humans, the strategy could pave the way to developing a universal vaccine that protects against a broad spectrum of viruses.

Viruses produce proteins that block a host’s RNAi response, causing disease. RNA, short for ribonucleic acid, is a nucleic acid present in all living cells, while RNA interference (RNAi) is a natural defense mechanism against viruses.

The authors hypothesized that creating a mutant virus that cannot produce the protein to suppress RNAi can weaken the virus. When a virus is weakened in this way, it can be used as a vaccine to boost the RNAi immune system.

Vaccines contain either a dead or modified, live version of a virus. The body’s immune system recognizes a protein in the virus and yields an immune response, which produces T-cells that attack the virus and stop it from spreading.

The immune response also produces “memory” B-cells that train the immune system to protect itself from future attacks.

Researchers tested their hypothesis with a mouse virus called Nodamura in mutant mice lacking T and B cells. Only one vaccine injection was sufficient to protect the mice from a lethal dose of the unmodified virus for at least 90 days, equivalent to 10 human years. The vaccine provided protection even in newborn mice.

Hope for the immunocompromised

The new vaccine uses a live, modified version of a virus but does not rely on the vaccinated body having the traditional immune response or immune active protein. Therefore, it can be used by babies whose immune systems are underdeveloped or immunocompromised individuals.

Children can receive their first vaccines against flu, COVID-19, and many other diseases at six months of age, leaving them especially vulnerable during the first months of their life.

The authors say it is highly unlikely that a virus mutating could avoid this vaccination strategy, which could be applied against pathogens like dengue, SARS, and COVID.

Scientists have previously called for a worldwide effort to create a universal coronavirus vaccine, as the potential for other coronaviruses to jump species and cause more pandemics is increasing.

The new strategy may lay the groundwork for the universal vaccine; however, it first has to be tested for safety and efficacy in humans.

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