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Why we need a better flu shot

A universal flu vaccine is closer than you think.

Kimberly Mas is a senior producer at Vox video focused on science explainers.

The flu vaccine is something many of us take for granted. Every year, starting in the early fall, “free flu shot available” signs start to line pharmacies and clinics. But in the US, only around half the population actually gets the vaccine. When talking about the flu, many equate it to a terrible cold, inconvenient at worst. But annual strains of influenza are estimated to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. The reality is, we’ve been living with influenza for so long that we often forget just how dangerous it can be.

The reason we need an annual vaccine for the flu in the first place: The virus is particularly prone to change. That ability to mutate is also what makes it particularly good at causing pandemic-level threats. The last four pandemics before Covid-19 were caused by an influenza virus. Experts warn that another one is inevitable and that our seasonal flu vaccine isn’t going to stop it.

For 80 years, the way we research and make our annual flu vaccine has remained the same. It’s a costly and timely process that involves predictions and chicken eggs. The result is a seasonal flu vaccine that’s certainly good enough, but we can do better. And now researchers are closer than ever to a big achievement: something like a flu vaccine that remains effective year after year, regardless of the strain. Something that could stop an outbreak before it starts; something like a universal flu vaccine.

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