Why we need better flu vaccines for a pandemic

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption So called “covid” vaccines are not the most potent in the world In 2009, just as the World Health Organisation was rushing to build a vaccine against the…

Why we need better flu vaccines for a pandemic

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption So called “covid” vaccines are not the most potent in the world

In 2009, just as the World Health Organisation was rushing to build a vaccine against the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, the global community discovered a batch of bird flu virus had mutated, and turned into a new type of highly lethal human flu.

The H7N9 virus had the potential to turn into a global pandemic and the world wide stock take of vaccines for bird flu has been cancelled ever since.

For governments across the world, and for researchers working on developing so-called “covid” vaccines for flu, the lessons from 2009 still ring true.

Flu vaccines in particular are facing some very tough challenges – and are not likely to come up with a good vaccine for pandemic flu anytime soon.

© Getty Images Image caption Medically there are very real concerns about the effectiveness of a Covid, or “made in Thailand” flu vaccine

The swine flu vaccine was an exception

The H1N1 virus, which led to the pandemic of 2009, is not the most dangerous type of flu virus.

It only changed in 2009 when the virus evolved to adapt itself to allow human and human-to-human transmission.

This vaccine was nothing like the very strong vaccines that the WHO routinely pumps out to those who get flu each year.

There is no evidence to date that the same thing will happen with the bird flu pandemic strains which, experts say, we are very likely to see in a world-wide pandemic scenario.

We just don’t know that yet.

So “covid” vaccines – which are designed to produce a milder attack when the virus is mutated for pandemic purposes – have to work without fail, but cannot be exactly as the influenza virus mutates to overcome the immune system.

That is why only the best and most potent vaccines, like the Pandemrix, currently developed by GlaxoSmithKline, will be effective during a pandemic.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption One of the main challenges is to gain optimal immunity in people who are vaccinated against one strain of flu and then get a different strain

Image copyright GlaxoSmithKline Image caption The H1N1 Pandemrix vaccine, manufactured in February 2009, in Dublin, is now not ready for use again

The H7N9 virus is proving tricky

The H7N9 virus was very difficult to fight in the early days – and its increased lethality has led to many calls to stop using those vaccines, fearing their use could actually increase the chance of something like the H7N9 virus becoming pandemic.

There is no evidence to support such an idea, and in fact, over the summer it has emerged that there is no evidence the H7N9 virus is coming up with any different strains compared to H5N1, its deadly equivalent.

However, the H7N9 virus was able to change, so scientists can not be sure that they will be able to find effective vaccines that will treat another bird flu pandemic, in the way they did during the 2009/10 global H1N1 pandemic.

No vaccine to kill off the virus

When it comes to pandemic, there is an already very effective way to protect the human population.

Human immunity levels are raised with vaccination. However, getting vaccines to those who might be infected is not practical.

Excess antibodies just accumulate in the blood, so it is harder for them to destroy the virus that could emerge.

The best that we have available is the Pandemrix vaccine from 2009 – but it is not ready to be used again.

So unless an effective vaccine is found quickly, we are going to be in for a very long struggle on the face of any influenza pandemic.

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