Science matters – Time for another flu jab?

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By Dorothy H Crawford


Mid Argyll resident Dorothy Crawford is Emeritus Professor of Medical Microbiology, University of Edinburgh.

She was born in Glasgow and graduated in medicine from London University, training as a specialist in immunology and microbiology. She held the chairs of Medical Microbiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (1990-97) and at the University of Edinburgh (1997-2010).  She was Vice Principal for Public Understanding of Medicine at the latter from 2008-2012.

Dorothy’s research interest was the Epstein-Barr virus, on which she has published more than 200 scientific papers. She has also published many short travel and science articles in newspapers, magazines and blogs. She contributed a regular science column to the Scotsman newspaper in 2008-09 and has written eight popular science books.

Dorothy is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and was awarded an OBE for services to medicine and higher education.

It is November already and time for the over-65s to get their annual flu jab.

As any sufferer knows, flu is not just a mild cough or cold but a feverish illness lasting about a week. Every year it kills 250,000-500,000 (mainly elderly) people worldwide. Now a new vaccine is entering trials. If successful this could, like vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella, give lifelong protection.

The major problem facing flu vaccine researchers is that many different strains of flu virus exist. Several strains may circulate in the community concurrently, any one of which can cause a winter epidemic. So flu viruses are continuously monitored worldwide and the three most threatening strains selected for the annual vaccine. Production must start in spring to be ready for winter, so decisions on which strains to include are partly guess work. Even in a good year, vaccination only protects 30-40 per cent of those jabbed. In 2016-17 this figure was zero per cent.

Present flu vaccines block infection by generating antibodies against two virus surface proteins. But these proteins mutate frequently, producing new strains that can dodge the antibodies and infect successfully. Thus the immune response engineered against one virus strain may be ineffective against another.

Researchers at the University of Oxford are developing a universal flu vaccine – a world first.  This targets proteins inside the virus that are virtually identical in all epidemic flu strains. The team has already proved it safe and shown that it generates the hoped-for immunity. Now they must demonstrate protection from flu this winter in over-65-year-olds.

Accordingly, they are inviting 10,000 over-65s in Berkshire and Oxfordshire to join a trial. All participants will get the regular 2017-18 winter vaccine, and half will also get the new universal vaccine, while the other half will receive a placebo. If successful this ground-breaking trial could herald a reliable flu vaccine for the over-65s.

In future this may benefit everyone and consign the time-consuming, vastly expensive annual flu vaccine production and administration to history.


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