Vaccine targeting both flu and Covid begins trials—As scientists test new ways to immunize people more effectively

The top row

Pfizer and BioNTech have launched a clinical trial to test a combination vaccine targeting influenza and Covid-19, the companies announced Thursday, one of several efforts to combine the two proposed vaccines as experts increasingly suggest that annual coronavirus boosters will be needed.

Basic elements

The early-stage clinical trial will test a two-way vaccine combining Pfizer’s flu vaccine – currently in late-stage clinical trials – and the co-developed vaccine targeting the BA.4 and BA.5 variants omicron of the coronavirus.

The US-based trial will evaluate the vaccine for safety, tolerability and the strength of the immune response in about 180 people between the ages of 18 and 64, the companies said.

The first volunteer was given a dose of the vaccine this week, the companies said.

Both the flu and Covid components are made using the mRNA platform that underpins the companies’ joint Covid vaccine.

Pfizer’s senior vice president and chief scientific officer of vaccine research and development, Annaliesa Anderson, said the technology’s “flexibility and speed of manufacturing” during the Covid pandemic showed it was “ideal for other respiratory diseases.”

The co-founder and CEO of BioNTech, Dr. Ugur Sahin, said the companies hope to provide a more “effective way” for people to get vaccinated against two major diseases that regularly mutate around existing vaccines.

Key background

Influenza and Covid are major killers and major contributors to ill health around the world. Both have clear and proven pandemic potential – influenza was widely expected to be the cause of the next global epidemic before the virus behind Covid-19 emerged – and both mutate relatively quickly, requiring frequent vaccine updates to remain protected. This changing landscape leaves experts and drug companies making educated guesses about which strains to target in that season’s plan, and that guesswork can leave notable gaps in the protection afforded by vaccines. The vaccines are ideal candidates for the mRNA technology released during the pandemic, which inserts genetic material to prompt the body to create a safe part of the virus that it is then trained to respond to if it is encountered in the future, as it is more flexible . and responsive relative to other vaccine technologies.

What to watch out for

Pfizer and BioNTech aren’t the only companies pushing a combination flu vaccine. Moderna, which uses the same kind of mRNA technology as Pfizer and BioNTech and was their main pandemic rival, is also testing its own mRNA flu vaccine and a vaccine combining it with the Covid booster vaccine. Novavax, which uses a more traditional style of vaccine technology, is also developing a combination shot. BioNTech’s Sahin said the Covid-flu trial will give the company more information about combining mRNA vaccines to address multiple pathogens, which he said will help guide its product line going forward.

Tangent

Moderna is also testing a three-pronged vaccine to protect against RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), Covid-19 and influenza. All three are potentially serious respiratory infections and are causing an alarming wave of infections right now that experts fear will overwhelm hospitals. Young infants and the elderly are especially vulnerable to severe RSV illness, and children’s hospitals across the country are already struggling to manage the deluge. Moderna chief Stephane Bancel said the shot could potentially be ready by fall 2023.

Big number

290,000 to 650,000. That’s about how many people worldwide are killed by seasonal flu each year, according to the World Health Organization. It causes between 3 and 5 million cases of serious illness. In the US, seasonal flu kills between 12,000 and 52,000 people each year, according to CDC estimates, sickening between 9 and 41 million.

Further reading

The never-ending hunt for the perfect flu vaccine (Guardian)

mRNA flu vaccine moves ahead as Pfizer begins late-stage trial, builds on Covid vaccine success (Forbes)

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