By Alok Jha, Science Correspondent
Scientists at Oxford University have successfully tested a universal flu vaccine that could work against all known strains of the illness, taking a significant step in the fight against a disease that affects billions of people each year.
The treatment – using a new technique and tested for the first time on humans infected with flu – targets a different part of the flu virus to traditional vaccines, meaning it does not need expensive reformulation every year to match the most prevalent virus that is circulating the world.
Developed by a team led by Dr Sarah Gilbert at Oxford’s Jenner Institute, the vaccine targets proteins inside the flu virus that are common across all strains, instead of those that sit on the virus’s external coat, which are liable to mutate.
If used widely a universal flu vaccine could prevent pandemics, such as the swine flu outbreaks of recent years, and end the need for a seasonal flu jab.
“The problem with flu is that you’ve got lots of different strains and they keep changing,” said Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute. “Occasionally one comes out of wildfowl or pigs and we’re not immune to it. We need new vaccines and we can’t make them fast enough.”