Aiming to stamp out the flu, the federal government awarded a $200 million federal grant to researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine to develop a vaccine for the miserable virus that sickens millions and kills thousands every year.
The university announced Friday that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases would provide the funding for the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health in Baltimore.
It’s one of the school’s largest grants, and over seven years it also will fund efforts to improve the seasonal vaccine as scientists work on the larger goal of a universal influenza vaccine — one that would work for years on most flu variants from a single dose.
“Eliminating influenza is the goal,” said Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, director of the vaccine center, who will lead the research collaborative. “It will certainly be a challenge, but in seven years we hope to have a better vaccine, or a lot of better vaccines.”
The money comes as many Americans begin their trek for their yearly shot, which is reformulated each year based on flu strains circulating on the opposite side of the globe but not always effective in stopping the virus from infecting people.
The contagious respiratory illness is considered one of the globe’s biggest health threats, and scientists have struggled to effectively protect people from it. Last season alone, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 43 million Americans were sickened by the flu.
Seniors, people with chronic conditions and infants not old enough to be vaccinated are most at risk, but the flu also kills healthy people every year.
Total numbers aren’t known because most infected people are not tested and recover at home.
The flu causes aches, fever, runny noses and other uncomfortable symptoms that can lead to complications such as pneumonia, which can be deadly.
To begin to get a handle on the numbers, Maryland established a voluntary reporting system among some doctors’ offices and hospital emergency rooms. Emergency departments across the state reported more than 68,000 people visited for influenza-like illnesses last season and 61 adults and four children died in the hospital from complications.
Despite the risk, federal estimates show that more than half the country’s population doesn’t bother getting a flu shot. Neuzil said people might believe it won’t help, they won’t get sick or the illness will be mild. Some believe the shot causes the flu, which it doesn’t.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the federal institute that provided the grant, said people don’t take the illness seriously enough, given how many people are hospitalized and die each year. In response, the institute, which is one of the National Institutes of Health, began planning about two years ago and developed a strategic plan released last year that lead to the Collaborative Influenza Vaccine Innovation Centers, or CIVICS, program.
Maryland is the first center named and will focus on testing vaccines.
Fauci said he couldn’t make any predictions about the prospects for one or more good vaccines coming out of the program. Progress is likely to be incremental, he said, with new vaccines providing broader and broader protection until there is universal coverage.
“What makes this so hard is that it’s not a single virus," he said. "We made a vaccine against measles, and that virus is essentially the same one that was circulating and infected me when I was a child. Small pox and polio don’t change a lot. Influenza viruses drift from season to season, and when they change dramatically we have a pandemic. That’s very unique among viruses.”
Neuzil’s center has long been working on better vaccines, as have other research centers around the country, including at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Maryland will use its first $2.5 million to test some of those vaccines already in the works on human volunteers, beginning shortly. Information on participating can be found on the medical school site or by calling 410-706-6156.
Maryland’s total funding could top $200 million under the contract’s options. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases also will award money to other research programs for related research on the flu as part of the effort.
Neuzil said Maryland will test vaccine candidates that look at approaches other than trying to target different strains of the virus each year, Neuzil said.
One such approach has to do with the part of the flu strain used in the vaccine. Normally vaccines produce an immune response to proteins on the surface of the flu viruses, and Neuzil said researchers are targeting the part of the proteins that remain the same rather than the part that changes.
“There are already vaccines in the pipeline that have been developed and are ready for human testing,” she said. “If we had to start from scratch in developing vaccines, it would take much longer. It’s still an aspirational goal to have an answer in seven years. But we do hope to have a better vaccines and have a direction on where to go.”
The federal contract will bring together researchers who are experts in virology, vaccinology, and immunology at Maryland, said Dr. E. Albert Reece, the dean of the school of medicine and Maryland’s executive vice president for medical affairs.
The vaccine center “has been a leader in researching and developing interventions for the most challenging diseases that impact the world’s most vulnerable populations," Reece said. "With this generous funding, and Dr. Neuzil’s expertise and leadership, [the center] will be able to make pathbreaking discoveries, and test new vaccines against this persistent infection that affects millions of people around the world.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who was on hand for Friday’s announcement at the University of Maryland’s Baltimore campus, has been working to boost funding available to flu researchers. He introduced a bill in February to dedicate $1 billion over five years. So far, he’s helped secure $240 million this fiscal year and next year.
He said the virus has taken an enormous human toll, as well as an economic one. He cited CDC data that found $10.4 billion in direct medical expenses annually from the flu and $87 billion in economic losses.
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“Development of a better flu vaccine and ultimately a universal flu vaccine is important and life-saving work,” Van Hollen said. “We need to be tackling this with a sense of urgency.”
That urgency often is lost on the public, said Dr. William Schaffner, the medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
Lack of confidence in the vaccine’s effectiveness is a top reason people don’t get an annual shot, said Schaffner, who is participating in a foundation panel discussion next week on public attitudes toward vaccination. People also say they’re too busy or it’s inconvenient to get the annual vaccination, or they have safety concerns, he said.
“None are good excuses,” he said.
The seasonal vaccine is important in stopping the flu’s spread and lessening illness in people who do become infected, Neuzil said.
A universal vaccine, “the holy grail” for researchers, Schaffner said, would boost usage because people could get one really effective shot any time of year. That would help coverage in the United State, but also significantly increase protections in developing countries where annual vaccinations are logistically difficult.
“A universal vaccine would protect against, if not all, a great array of influenza strains and could be given every 5 or 10 years or whatever it is,” he said. “Every healthcare encounter would be an opportunity to provide that vaccine, not just every fall. How many people would just never get sick?"