The Future of Flu Vaccine

Influenza

It seems we like to shorten a name to make it more friendly: Rosemary becomes Ro, Timothy becomes Tim, and influenza become the flu. As I enter my fourth day with the flu, I can attest there is nothing friendly about it. I am hardly alone. My wife has it also, and there are more than 3 million cases per year in the United States. The virus spreads easily, and attacks the lungs, nose, and throat. Symptoms include fever, chills, muscle aches, cough, congestion, runny nose, headaches, and fatigue. Young children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with chronic disease or weak immune systems are at high risk. Approximately 375,000 people per year die from the flu. An annual vaccine can help prevent the flu and limit its complications, but the efficacy varies from year to year. My wife and I had a high-dose vaccination less than 90 days ago. Being over 65, our human immune defenses become weaker and places us at greater risk of severe illness from influenza. The higher dose of antigen in the vaccine is supposed to give older people a better immune response, and therefore, better protection against flu. Not this time. 

Controversy surrounds flu vaccines, how it is formulated, how it is manufactured, and the impact on our immune systems. Scientists from around the world look at recent trends, analyze a lot of data, and then develop a consensus on what the upcoming seasonal design for the vaccine should be. The lead time from the design decision and getting the vaccine distributed is at least four months. Unfortunately, things change, and the ultimate efficacy can be as low as 10%. This year looks like it will be a particularly bad year. Its not the weather, its the process. The vaccine is made using chicken eggs in huge pharmaceutical facilities operating much like they have for decades. There has to be a more modern and better way.

Dr. Craig Venter, an American biochemist, geneticist, and entrepreneur known for being one of the first to sequence the human genome, is an advocate for a new and innovative approach for the development of vaccines. Venter said the current process for developing the H1N1, otherwise known as swine flu, vaccine took many months and the supply was barely adequate to cover healthcare workers. He said if the H1N1 virus had been as deadly and widespread as some had forecasted, we would have had a very bad situation. Venter envisions vaccines being developed using synthetic DNA instead of billions of eggs. He has written how data about the DNA of the virus to be protected against can be developed into a digital recipe and emailed to laboratories which could then begin production of the vaccine within 12 hours. Venter said FDA approval is imminent. As new and more complex viruses emerge, the new approach to vaccine development could become extremely important.

Read more about vaccines in Health Attitude: Unraveling and Solving the Complexities of Healthcare.

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