The National Institutes of Health has announced the beginning of a clinical trial in humans of a new universal influenza vaccine. For many decades, scientists have been searching for a universal vaccine that would cover all strains of influenza and be effective against novel strains. This would do away with the seasonal influenza vaccines that are required because the influenza virus mutates between flu seasons. If it works as expected, the vaccine would also prevent the global influenza pandemics that happen about once a generation.
A universal influenza vaccine is not the only vaccine that may be coming soon to a healthcare practice near you. Work is also being done on an HIV vaccine. Pinning down such a vaccine is difficult because, like influenza, HIV mutates at a rapid pace. It is that ability to mutate that makes influenza resistant to antivirals if a patient does not adhere to treatment, and why the virus that infects one person is not exactly the same as the one that the person may pass on to another. Furthermore, the when the virus comes out of a host cell, it wraps itself in the host’s own cell membrane, helping the virus evade the immune system.
It is not just pathogens that new vaccines are being designed against. Research is also being done into new ways to deliver vaccines. For example, research is being done into patches for vaccine delivery in order to minimize the use of needles and hopefully encourage people who are afraid of needles to get vaccinated. (An influenza vaccine that is delivered via a mist up the nose is already in the market.)
Finally, existing vaccines are being refined as time goes by to make them even more effective and even safer. Where there used to be thousands of antigens (the proteins or sugars that trigger an immune response) in vaccines a few decades ago, current vaccines have much fewer antigens. This is a result of continued research from vaccine manufacturers into improving their product.