UW research aims to improve flu vaccine choice

The sign outside the drugstore advertises: “Flu shots. Don’t Wait.”

That sign resonates, as sniffling and coughing seem to be everywhere.

The cold-and-flu season has arrived.

For the 2016–17 season, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people six months and older get a flu shot before the end of October.

And they mean a shot.

The CDC is recommending that nasal spray flu vaccine not be used, amid concerns about its effectiveness.

More than 90 million doses of the seasonal influenza vaccine were distributed by late September.

During the 2014–15 flu season, the virus used to make the world’s vaccine stocks proved a poor match for the circulating seasonal virus; it was less than 20 percent effective.

The 2015–16 vaccine proved a better match for the seasonal strains of influenza. However, the shifting nature of the virus and the need to make global vaccine stocks before the onset of the flu season can make vaccine strain selection almost a shot in the dark.

But the process of vaccine selection could soon be improved by a new approach that allows scientists to get ahead of flu virus mutations.

A team of researchers led by University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine virologist Yoshihiro
Kawaoka wrote earlier this year in the journal Nature Microbiology about a way to forecast the naturally occurring mutations that help the seasonal flu virus dodge vaccines.

They wrote about a strategy to anticipate seasonal flu strains more precisely. This would foster a closer match for the so called “vaccine viruses” used to create the global vaccine supply.

“This is the first demonstration that one can accurately anticipate in the lab future seasonal influenza strains,” said Kawaoka, a UW-Madison professor of pathobiological sciences who also holds a faculty appointment at the University of Tokyo. “We can identify the mutations that will occur in nature and make those viruses available at the time of vaccine candidate selection.”