Netflix's 'Pandemic' Highlights The Need for a Possible Universal Flu Vaccine

There are tons of reasons to get a yearly flu shot. There are also tons of reasons that there needs to be a universal flu vaccine available to the public. Such a vaccine would work against any strain of the virus or sub-type of the virus.

Flu's Impact on the U.S. Population

Between 3% to 11% of the entire U.S. population gets sick with the flu each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data—and that's truly only an estimate. The flu is also extremely contagious and spreads to others via droplets from coughing, sneezing, and talking for up to six feet. It can also be deadly averaging between 12,000 – 52,000 deaths each year between 2010 and 2020.

And yet, less than half of adults and just under 60% of children got the annual jab during the 2021-2022 flu season. The reasons why range from people being hesitant about the effectiveness of vaccines, avoiding them because of a fear of needles, or simply forgetting or not having the time, but one thing is clear: Not enough people are getting the flu shot—and there are consequences.

Possible Pandemic Docu-Series

That's where Netflix's new docuseries Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak comes into play. The six-part series, which premiered on January 2020, explores the possibility of a universal flu vaccine and why it would be so important to health, worldwide. "Influenza is very hard to predict," Syra Madad, DHSc, senior director of the Special Pathogens Program for NYC Health + Hospitals, pointed out in the documentary. "It takes one person—one host—to lead to a pandemic."

And a pandemic—the worldwide spread of a new disease—of the flu isn't unheard of. It was just over 100 years ago that the Spanish flu of 1918—H1N1 virus—wiped out 50 to 100 million people and infected an estimated 500 million people. That's one-third of the world’s population at the time infected.

Considering the havoc it wreaked on the two billion inhabitants of the earth a century ago, experts worry that our current world population of 8 billion could be devastated by a similar illness—mainly because we still haven’t found a fool-proof way to eradicate, cure, or even protect ourselves against the flu.

In fact, many experts believe we are due for another deadly pandemic. According to Dr. Dennis Carroll, chair of the Global Virome Project Leadership Board and past director of USAID’s Emerging Threats Unit—featured in the docu-series trailer. “When we talk about another flu pandemic happening, it’s not a matter of if, but when.”

Some believe that “when” is actually now with the recent coronavirus outbreak rapidly spreading across the globe, predicting that the deadly virus that originated in Wuhan, China could be as deadly as the Spanish flu—which only adds to the reason why a universal flu shot is at the forefront of many doctors' and scientists' minds.

What Is a Universal Flu Vaccine?

Right now, you're supposed to get a flu shot every year—and that flu shot really only protects you from the influenza viruses that research predicts will be the most common during the upcoming season, according to the CDC. Most flu vaccines protect against four viruses: Two influenza A viruses (H1N1 and H3N2) and two influenza B viruses.

A universal flu vaccine, however, would provide broader protection against different classes of the influenza virus, Albert Shaw, MD, PhD, an infectious disease expert at Yale Medicine tells Health. In that case, "the composition of the vaccine wouldn't need to change every year, so there could be protection, even against a previously unknown pandemic strain." That protection would also be long-lasting, so you wouldn't need to get it every year. However, that is hopeful speculation, because researchers don't know exactly how long coverage will last until it's formulated and available to children, adults, and the elderly population.

The National Institutes of Health also has its own criteria a universal flu vaccine would have to meet. It would have to be:

  • At least 75% effective
  • Protect against the group I and II influenza A viruses
  • Have durable protection that lasts at least one year
  • Be suitable for all age groups

Problems With Producing One Vaccine

To be totally honest, the flu is extremely complicated. "The influenza virus has a remarkable ability to mutate the composition of proteins such as hemagglutinin that are important targets of a protective immune response," says Dr. Shaw. "This is why the 3 or 4 strains of influenza virus in the annual vaccine frequently change from year to year, and last year’s vaccine may not provide the best protection against this year’s influenza." An immune response is when your body automatically recognizes and responds to a virus to defend the body. There's no learning curve it knows how to battle it.

The influenza virus can also occasionally undergo a marked change to a new pandemic strain where previous immunity may not be effective, he adds. “Such pandemic strains frequently emerge from animal reservoirs for the influenza virus such as birds or pigs and are difficult to predict in advance.”

Of course, that doesn't mean scientists aren't trying to come up with a universal vaccine—in fact, Dr. Shaw explains that a lot of research has gone into understanding the immune response to the current influenza viruses and vaccines, in hopes of eventually finding a universal vaccine.

"There are parts of the influenza virus that are well conserved across many different influenza strains, and these would be great candidates for a universal vaccine," says Dr. Shaw. "But the problem has been that these parts of the virus don't give a strong immune response, and a lot of work is being done to understand how to develop effective vaccines from these [parts]."

Confusing, right? Dr. Shaw says it's easier to understand one of the key parts of the influenza virus—hemagglutinin protein, which is integral to its infectivity—as having a structure similar to that of a lollipop, with a "stem" and "head" portion. "The head of the protein is highly variable from strain to strain but the stem sequence stays pretty consistent across many strains," he says. "Current vaccines mainly result in antibodies against the head portion, and one approach in clinical trials tries to generate antibody protection against the stem."

Will It Work?

Yes! The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a division of the NIH, is currently in the first stage of human testing of H1ssF_3928, a universal flu vaccine. Results on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine should be available in the next few months—but that means that it likely wouldn’t be available to the general public for another decade.

The vaccine, currently being tested at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, is designed to “teach the body to make protective immune responses against diverse influenza subtypes by focusing the immune system on a portion of the virus that varies relatively little from strain to strain.” In February 2018, researchers at the NIH unveiled their agenda to develop a “universal” influenza vaccine, one that would provide long-lasting protection for all age groups from multiple influenza subtypes, including those that might cause a pandemic.

“Seasonal influenza is a perpetual public health challenge, and we continually face the possibility of an influenza pandemic resulting from the emergence and spread of novel influenza viruses,” said NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. “This Phase 1 clinical trial is a step forward in our efforts to develop a durable and broadly protective universal influenza vaccine.”

Jacob Glanville, PhD, founding partner, CEO, and president, of the privately funded biotech company, Distributed Bio and Centivax, who is featured in Pandemic, is also on a mission to develop a universal flu vaccine. His company’s journey is heavily featured in the Netflix documentary.

However, Glanville's company has yet to make it to the human testing stage mostly due to financial restraints—it's one of the main reasons he decided to participate in the show. “I am avoiding traditional funding, so this provided a platform for people to hear about us—private investors, governmental groups, foundations,” he explains via email.


Still, clinical trials and multiple forays into the world of a universal flu vaccine are good news, not to mention something to look forward to for future generations. For now, though, it's important, if you're able, to keep protecting yourself (and others) with the yearly flu shot—no excuses.

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