A Vaccine for Ordinary Flu?

By Shlomo Maital

Professor Ruth Arnon, Weizmann Institute

With the world’s attention singularly focused on COVID-19 (understandably), another threat waits in the wings – ordinary flu.

   Each fall, my wife and I take a number at our HMO and get a flu shot. The flu shot is different each year, because each year the flu virus is different, having mutated over the previous months. The flu vaccine itself is an educated guess, guessing at which flu will be most virulent several months later. Sometimes the guess works, sometimes it is quite wrong.  

   Every year it is estimated that 5 million people get the common flu, and kills up to 650,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.  This fall will be no different. People weakened by common flu may be more susceptible to COVID-19, which will doubtless linger. So we do need to worry about common flu, not just COVID-19.

     Weizmann Institute is a leading research university in Rehovot, Israel. Many years ago, Prof. Ruth Arnon discovered copaxone, a drug effective in treating those with multiple sclerosis (MS). The drug was developed and marketed by Teva, an Israeli pharma company.

       Ruth Arnon is 86 years old, and continues to work hard in her lab. A headline in the April 28 issue of The Marker, an Israeli business daily, features some startling news: Arnon’s flu vaccine, developed and tested by BiondVax, a startup, is going into Phase 3 clinical trials (the final phase).

       What is different about Arnon’s flu shot is this: It works (IF it works, and it seems that it does) against ALL flu viruses. So we will need just one shot, like mumps and measles vaccine, and not new shots every fall.

       How does Arnon’s vaccine work? Arnon: “We studied the proteins of the flu virus. We identified four places in flu viruses that are common to every type of flu”. The vaccine Arnon developed and patented, and which is under clinical trials through BiondVax, works to block the parts of the flu proteins common to all varieties.

       Arnon notes cautiously that so far it has given flu immunity to mice, genetically engineered to resemble human genes. And the vaccine is approaching the finish line of this long long marathon, Phase 3.   If it can be manufactured fast enough, and cheaply enough, perhaps it will save the world many deaths from flu and flu-weakened coronavirus patients.

     Now, let’s be clear. COVID-19 is NOT flu. Arnon’s vaccine will not affect coronavirus. But if it saves deaths from common flu, and flu-related COVID-19, it can save many many thousands of lives. So we will track the BiondVax vaccine carefully, as it completes Phase 3.