American Billionaire Bill Gates, who has given billions of dollars over the years to fight different diseases, now wants to stimulate research to develop a universal and long-term flu vaccine.
One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu broke out. The pandemic, born in the United States, would have killed at least 50 million people, more than the fighting of the First World War.
Since then, seasonal flu epidemics continue to wreak havoc on the global population, killing between 290,000 and 650,000 people each year worldwide. A scourge against which Bill Gates has decided to engage his philanthropic foundation to encourage researchers to develop a universal vaccine against influenza.
“We think a universal flu vaccine would not only eliminate the pandemic risk, but would have significant health benefits,” Bill Gates told STAT during a virtual conference for doctors and public health experts. A demonstration of American-style optimism for which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is committed to putting $12 million on the table.
A perverse and polymorphous virus
The flu viruses are very unstable and highly contagious. Their genetic inheritance continues to evolve by mutation or by recombination between subtypes, so researchers never really know which exact strain will hit. The new vaccines, designed each year with outdated strains, are therefore struggling, and the development of a universal vaccine is a kind of epidemiological grail.
“I do not think we’re close,” said Professor Michael Osterholm, director of the Infectious Disease Center at the University of Minnesota, in the columns of STAT. “There has been crucial work, but we are only at the first meter when we need a thirty-meter rope.”
Clinical trials by 2021?
Bill Gates’ boost to the research will be in the form of individual scholarships, ranging from $ 250,000 to $ 2 million over two years. For this grant, scientists must be able to offer a prototype by 2021, valid and effective in animals, which protects against all subtypes of two major viruses, Influenza A and B. Cherry on the cake, immunity should last at least 3 to 5 years — against a few months for current vaccines.
The goal is therefore at least ambitious. The call for projects also invites scientists to use related fields, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and bioinformatics. A bill, recently introduced in the US Senate, proposed investing a billion dollars over five years. Given the budgetary priorities of the current administration, its chances of succeeding appear slim.
Ineffective vaccines… but useful
Depending on the year, vaccination against influenza protects between 20 and 70% of people vaccinated.
Current vaccines use a very unstable part of the virus, carrying antigens (haemagglutinins) capable of causing virulent immune responses, but very variable in their expression. One of the most advanced strategies being evaluated in humans is to target antigens in the “tail” of the virus (neuraminidases), which are less immunogenic but more stable.