Developing a universal vaccine for influenza viruses

Dr. Babita Agrawal, Professor, Department of Surgery, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta

Influenza is a highly contagious acute respiratory illness that causes annual epidemics with significant morbidity and mortality. Globally, seasonal influenza virus infections lead to 3-5 million cases of severe illness and ~0.5 million deaths every year. Besides seasonal epidemics, intermittent pandemic influenza poses a serious threat of increased mortality and morbidity.

Vaccination is undoubtedly the most efficient preventive measure against influenza viruses. The current vaccines are based on the major surface antigens of the influenza virus, which are highly prone to mutation (drift) and reassortment (shift). Therefore, they are highly specific to a particular seasonal variant (strain) of the virus and do not provide long-term protection. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC, USA), the seasonal vaccines have been only 10-60% effective from 2004-2019. Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the composition of the updated influenza vaccine, and it takes approximately six months to deliver the first doses of vaccine. Due to this lag period, a highly pathogenic strain of influenza could spread rapidly around the world without any containment, like what we have witnessed with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Babita Agrawal’s research for the past 20 years has been focused on identifying the ways in which pathogens can trigger protective immune responses and how this can be fine-tuned for our benefit to develop novel vaccines and therapeutics. Her goal of a “universal” or cross-protective influenza vaccine is based on conserved antigenic sequences present on most influenza virus subtypes and their modifications. Such a universal vaccine would provide broad and long-term protection. Insights gained from these studies have also led Dr. Agrawal to embark on investigating a novel pan-coronavirus vaccine, for the prevention of infections with SARS-CoV2 and all its variants.

“The support from CIHR has been critical to my entire scientific research career in pursuit of vaccines and therapeutics, starting from a new independent researcher to the current level.”

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