They’re a natural part of a healthy lifestyle, but many Americans don’t realize that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you’re one of only 41 of over 44 countries that don’t have the opportunity to take a targeted vaccine (VLP) to ward off the flu or other serious respiratory viruses, such as shingles.
But it may be time to arm yourself for another possible pandemic: Small clinical trials suggest that a handful of the most commonly used formulations of the VLP vaccines are effective in boosting antibodies against such viruses, so that an illness doesn’t linger for weeks.
VLP vaccines are made with two substances: a dead virus, called the H3N2 virus, and a protective “immunoglobulin,” known as VLA. Scientists take these components from two different ways: They genetically engineer the virus they want to create, or they coat the adjuvant, the glycoprotein found in most antiviral vaccines, with the VLA-derived antibodies.
The adjuvant makes the virus more infectious. Adding a VLA-derived antibody to the vaccine provides added protection.
The vast majority of the vaccines studied, which are manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Novartis, Sanofi and others, are made using this recipe.
But the large-scale production of vaccines in large factories has led to some declining potency in the form of big drops in the “herd effect”. VLP vaccines aren’t built for that.
To provide the upper hand in a pandemic, the World Health Organization recommends that an individual get vaccinated every year or if they know they might be exposed in the future. But many people don’t do that, in part because of belief that the vaccine will give them more severe symptoms and a high rate of “washout”.
“With one in three people who receive an influenza vaccine never showing any illness, we know that most are too afraid to get their vaccine,” says Dr. Julie Gerberding, former director of the CDC and the former director of Sanofi Pasteur, the world’s largest manufacturer of the VLP vaccines.
This fear of all-in-one disease is based on misperceptions. For one, the VLP vaccine is a simple oral vaccine: There are no syringes to handle and a single shot can be given in the dentist’s chair. The series of injections is regular, and not all are necessary. Vaccine safety monitoring groups test each dose and ensure vaccination rates are maintained. There are also blanks in the vaccine, which have been found to change antigenic fingerprints and give weaker protection.
The reason, scientists say, is because these antibodies disappear in time and re-appear later, depending on how aggressively they react to the virus. Most people don’t have enough time to build up such defenses.
In theory, the VLP vaccines are versatile: They can supplement the received vaccine and spread immunity across multiple generations if a pandemic hits. In clinical trials, studies have found that people who received VLP swabs got immuneized up to a week earlier than people who received the flu shot (for comparison, people who were given the flu shot received 15 days of immunity, whereas people who received the VLP swabs got immunity in the first two days).
It’s important to note that more testing is needed. Two studies, one in The Lancet and one in JAMA, found that the milder versions of the VLP vaccines produced better immune responses and were more potent than the so-called “strong” ones.
“This is very exciting. It will be interesting to see if a single, strong vaccine can provide protection to children across the years,” Gerberding says.
As this potential safety review comes to light, the flu vaccine manufacturers also must clear manufacturing procedures, determining how close to a product’s manufacturing stage VLP immune-suppressing agents should be added.
“For a vaccine to work properly, you have to have that VLA adjuvant. Having less isn’t OK,” Gerberding says.