By Dr. Ron Babecoff
The mantra, “get your flu shot” is almost as common as “eat right and exercise regularly,” and it gets louder with winter fast approaching. Senior citizens in the U.S. are reminded to get vaccinated for flu, but last year, the vaccine was as low as 9% effective for older people according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Each year in the U.S., about 21,000 elderly people die from the flu. The question stands; why isn’t the flu vaccine protecting the people who need it the most?
The Fluid Nature of Flu
Flu remains a huge public health issue, and despite the fact that more people are getting vaccinated, the population is not better protected. NIH data shows vaccination rates for people 65+ increased from 30% to 67% from 1989–1997, and remains at around 60–70% today. However, flu related mortality and hospitalization rates have continued to increase rather than decline.
Currently available flu vaccines have very low effectiveness rates because there is frequently a mismatch between the flu strains included in the vaccine and the circulating strains of flu that are most dominant in a given season. It takes around six months to manufacture the vaccine and the WHO has to make a prediction on what the predominating circulating flu strain will be far in advance of the actual flu season. This “educated guess” approach of flu strain selection is ineffective: The 2014–2015 mismatch resulted in a 19% effectiveness rate for the vaccine in the general population––the lowest rate reported by the CDC in the past five years.
New Data Indicates More Reasons Why The Current Vaccine May Be Less Effective in People 65+
According to the National Council on Aging, approximately 80% of people 65+ suffer from chronic illness and research shows the flu vaccine has not been effective in protecting against inflections resulting from flu virus, such as pneumonia. Also, two recent studies have found that statins, the cholesterol lowering drugs, may weaken the effect of the flu vaccine. Older patients who received the flu vaccine were more likely to seek treatment for a respiratory illness during flu season if they were taking a statin, compared with vaccinated patients who were not taking statins. Recently, the FDA approved a flu vaccine that contains an adjuvant, a non-specific chemical enhancer of the immune response, to improve effectiveness in seniors vulnerable to the virus. But will this be enough?
Universal Flu Vaccine Could Mean Universal Solution
The low protection offered by the traditional seasonal vaccine and the threat of pandemic have led scientists to devote efforts to developing a “Universal Flu Vaccine” in order to provide broad coverage to each and every flu strain in a single formulation. BiondVax, an Israeli-based company, is the most advanced, in the quest for this Holy Grail. They are among several companies working on this unique scientific approach to developing a radically different vaccine.
How it Works
Existing flu vaccines work by inducing the body’s immune system to recognize and fight off the specific flu strains if they strike. Typically, three existing flu strains are chosen then disabled and included in the vaccine.
Flu viruses are parasites that live inside cells and therefore antibodies, which operate outside of cells, are not the most effective way to protect against the virus. The Universal Flu Vaccine takes the battle from outside the cell to inside the cell where there is another arm of the immune system called cell-mediated immunity. This part of the immune system contains specific T cells that are stimulated to produce virus-killing agents called cytokines when they come in contact with a flu virus after exposure to the Universal Flu Vaccine. The goal is not just to take the fight to the virus source, but also to offer broader protection that doesn’t change year to year. This would allow for less frequent vaccinations (about every five years vs. annually), similar to the Tetanus or Polio vaccine. In addition, it would offer protection against potential pandemic flu strains as well––think swine (H1N1) and bird (H5N1 and H7N9) flu strains.
While, it’s too early to know how severe the 2016 flu season will be, it will soon become clearer how effective this year’s vaccine is. During any particular flu season, the virus may infect up to 20% of the entire population, causing illness, lost workdays, hospitalizations and even deaths. Until we see a breakthrough with Universal Flu Vaccine, we must return to that old mantra, “get a flu shot and hope for the best.”
Dr. Ron Babecoff is the Founder and CEO of BiondVax Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: BVXV) an innovative biopharmaceutical company developing a Universal Flu Vaccine, providing multi-season and multi-strain protection against all human influenza virus strains, both seasonal and pandemic.