By: David Geller, CPCU, SCLA
Much attention has been paid to the race to develop a vaccine that could neutralize COVID-19.
However, even before this pandemic shook up life as we knew it, efforts were reportedly being made to conjure a universal vaccine that could be mobilized in the event of a pandemic flu, which, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), emerged three times in the 20th century.
In a 2018 article, Axios reported on a claim from the National Security Council that, until the U.S. improves its vaccines, the country would not be ready to confront a flu pandemic (SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease known as COVID-19, is not a strain of influenza).
If this assertion may have fallen on deaf ears back in 2018, Axios has reported that the COVID-19 outbreak appears to have reinforced the need for a universal flu vaccine that could address a future pandemic flu.
Influenza, per Axios, contains multiple strains that are capable of mutating rapidly. Each year, a seasonal flu vaccine is developed roughly six months prior to the start of flu season, with their effectiveness reportedly ranging from 10%-70% every year.
Given the unpredictable—and sometimes lacking—nature of vaccines on a year-to-year basis, Axios has reported on the various steps being undertaken to develop a universal vaccine that could “be the key to herd immunity to influenza.”
According to the article, trials are ongoing, and “early human data is showing the vaccine focused on the stem is safe, well-tolerated and generated a ‘robust immune response’ so far.” However, Axios notes that, while the vaccines undergoing testing are broader than current vaccines, 100% of influenza strains are not accounted for.
The Director of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Vaccine Research Center (VRC) expressed to Axios his hope that the universal vaccine will be available in five years.
Other Updates in Medical Technology in the Fight Against COVID-19
While the conception of a universal flu vaccine could go a long way in mitigating a future pandemic, the bulk of scientific brainpower and resources is being dedicated to address the pandemic of today.
As the days have turned into weeks and now months, more information has emerged pertaining to what particular attributes of both COVID-19 and those that are inflicted with it could trigger the most dangerous of symptoms.
Armed with more intel, Axios has reported that one company “has developed a highly sensitive antibody test capable of indicating early in a COVID-19 infection whether a patient is likely to develop an immune overreaction — called a cytokine storm — that can lead to a more severe case.”
In the article, Axios also reported that efforts to contain and minimize spread of COVID-19 have also accelerated the development of diagnostic technologies. For example, molecular electronics biosensor chips could enable the following capabilities, per Axios:
While the RT-PCR tests used for diagnosing active infections repeatedly copy specific viral sequences in a sample before they reach detectable levels, biosensors can detect the presence of viral genes in a sample as it is, producing results much more rapidly.
As it becomes cheaper, such technology holds the promise of being able to test an entire population for specific viruses, or even scan the physical environment for signs of viral contamination.