The next pandemic was supposed to be influenza. After all, three flu pandemics occurred in the last century alone — the Spanish flu of 1918, Asian influenza in 1957, and the Hong Kong flu of 1968.
With the 21st century came the H5N1 avian flu. First, poultry and wild birds succumbed to it. By the mid-2000s, dozens of people in Southeast Asia fell ill, and around 60% of those who contracted it died. Governments predicted a pandemic and drew up preparedness plans, but it never arrived. Meanwhile, a different strain of flu was bubbling up halfway around the world.
In April 2009, the H1N1 swine flu began infecting people in Mexico and soon spread to the United States. Later that month, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the first-ever “public health emergency of international concern.” Swine flu spread around the world quickly, and the WHO officially deemed the situation a pandemic in June.
The perpetual threat of an influenza pandemic led researchers like Matthew Memoli, MD, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), to pursue the idea of a universal flu vaccine — one that would ideally provide broad and long-lasting protection against any new influenza strain people might encounter year after year. His team’s research has shown promising results against seasonal flu.
Now, he’s taking what he’s learned and applying it to a new effort to make a universal vaccine to provide protection against multiple types of coronavirus — the family of viruses to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs.
A multitude of coronaviruses are lurking in bats and other animals, just waiting for the right opportunity to spill over and infect people. It’s not a matter of if but when, and the next outbreak could be even worse. WHO experts have warned that the current Covid-19 pandemic might not be the “big one” that scientists have anticipated.
“It’s clearly the time to start now to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine.”