Hopes for universal flu vaccine by next winter after huge breakthrough - 'This could save thousands of lives'

Close up portrait of beautiful young woman wearing mask getting vaccinated.
An experimental vaccine could provide universal protection against flu. (Stock image: Getty)

One of the UK's leading experts on flu has hailed an experimental vaccine that could provide 'universal protection' against flu as a "huge breakthrough".

Professor John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary University, said the vaccine, revealed in a US study published on Thursday, could potentially save thousands of lives and help tame the "big beast" of influenza.

The two-dose vaccine uses the same messenger RNA (mRNA) technology used in some COVID vaccines and could potentially protect against all 20 known influenza A and B subtypes, paving the way for a universal flu vaccine.

The flu vaccine is reformulated every year to try to protect against the most common strains, but currently does not offer universal protection.

Earlier this month health experts warned parents of two and three-year-olds to get them vaccinated against flu as rates continued to rise in England.

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Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, Prof Oxford said while current vaccines protect against four viruses, the new vaccine currently being tested on mice would cover 18-20.

"This is a huge breakthrough," he said.

He commended the group behind the development as not only having the "technical experience" but also having "sensibility on vaccinology and all the other ins and outs of making a vaccine", which would be instrumental in their success.

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"The biggest thing I can tell you they have found is they can mix all 20 of those varieties together, all of them could be important in causing a pandemic, and they don't interfere with each other.

"They've got an equivalent response and that's an absolutely incredible piece of information which I think will help us move forward at this time with these new vaccines in flu just as people have moved forward with COVID and I look forward to that."

FALMOUTH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07: Notices are displayed at Swanpool Nature Reserve warning of cases of Bird Flu on November 07, 2022 in Falmouth, Cornwall, England. (Photo by Hugh R Hastings/Getty Images)
Prof Oxford warned of future pandemics and voiced concerns over the H5N1 virus. (Stock image: Getty)

He speculated that the group may already be planning human trials and data could be gained within the next six months, though the development of the COVID jab had proved that the process could be accelerated.

Prof Oxford also warned about the potential for future pandemics, citing the importance of continuing to address "threats".

"I sometimes look out of the window now and think 'my goodness, perhaps I'm the only one worried about H5N1 in birds," he said. "But I am. We've got some threats around, we really have, we just can't sit around and ... this group is exmplifying that and it's very pleasing."

Asked if the vaccine was likely to be ready by next winter, he said he thought the winter afterwards would be more likely.

He added: "But we'll have it. I cannot emphasise what a breakthrough this paper is.

"The two beasts of the respiratory jungle - flu and COVID - they can be gripped I think by this new technology of mRNA vaccines and that would help us tremendously in the years ahead.

"This is grasping the thing by the neck."

Asked if such a vaccine would save thousands of lives, he said: "The potential is huge and I think sometimes we underestimate these big respiratory viruses, I really do, so we have to get a grip on it. We've almost got a grip, I think, on COVID, and now influenza is the next big beast out there to tackle."

In a statement as the study was announced on Thursday, study leader Scott Hensley from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania said: "The idea here is to have a vaccine that will give people a baseline level of immune memory to diverse flu strains, so that there will be far less disease and death when the next flu pandemic occurs."

He said if successful in human trials, the universal flu vaccine would not necessarily prevent infection but would provide protection against severe disease and death.