Doctors’ offices. Drug stores. Grocery stores. Getting a flu shot is easier than ever before because they’re available almost anywhere.
“The easier the access to flu vaccines, the better, because we’re all at risk,” said OMRF scientist Judith James, M.D., Ph.D. “Influenza viruses are constantly mutating, which means our immune systems are always playing catch-up in an attempt to protect us.”
An internationally recognized scientist and physician who has spent her career studying the immune system, James has developed a deep understanding of how vaccines work. For the last five years, she’s worked with fellow OMRF researcher Linda Thompson, Ph.D., on a project for the National Institutes of Health focused on improving the effectiveness of flu vaccination for certain populations with compromised immune systems.
“For the vast majority of the population, flu shots are a wonderful tool to ward off what can be a deadly virus,” said James, who holds the Lou C. Kerr Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research at OMRF. “An amazing amount of work goes into producing the vaccine before it can start protecting us.”
Creating the flu shot is a year-round, geographically far-reaching endeavor. There are 130 influenza centers in 101 countries that are constantly monitoring different flu viruses. They track the movement of different strains of influenza and send their results and samples to World Heath Organization labs in London, Melbourne, Tokyo, Beijing and Atlanta, Georgia.
Using the collected information, the WHO predicts which strains of influenza are most likely to cause illnesses during the next flu season and recommends specific vaccines for inclusion in the flu shot. The final decision about which viruses to target with the shot is made by individual countries. In the U.S., the decision is made by the Food and Drug Administration.
“A lot of people assume there’s only one kind of flu or think that the flu shot only contains one part of one virus each season,” James said. “The truth is, there are different kinds of influenza viruses and they’re constantly changing, so the flu shot contains sequences from three different common viruses each year.”
The WHO meets in February to discuss the composition of the flu shot for the Northern Hemisphere and gives their recommendations to the FDA. Because the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere run counter to ours, the meeting for their flu vaccines takes place in September.
As soon as recommendations are made, flu shot manufacturers go to work producing vaccines. Speed is key, because it will take at least six months to make large quantities of the vaccines that people expect beginning in the fall.
“The virus vaccines are grown in chicken eggs, which can be problematic,” said James. “Some vaccines won’t grow or grow poorly in eggs. And, of course, anyone who is allergic to eggs has trouble taking the vaccine—though with the help of an allergist, it’s not impossible.”
The egg method churns out about 413 million doses annually, with capacity for about double that amount if necessary.
“We think there are other ways to provide protection against influenza beyond the vaccine, including one we’ve worked on here at OMRF,” she said. “We’ve studied using monoclonal antibodies—lab-grown antibodies to viruses—that might be able to give almost instant immunity to some viral diseases. With more research, it could be the flu shot of the future.”
Regardless of how it’s made, the most important thing is for families to get their annual flu vaccines, James said. “It may not be perfect, but it offers the best protection available.”