Google parent Alphabet’s venture arm GV (formerly Google Ventures) is among the companies backing U.K. biotech Vaccitech, which has set out to achieve one of medicine’s most-sought milestones: developing a universal flu vaccine. The company has drawn in $27 million in new funding to help, in part, fund large clinical trials of its vaccine as the most widespread flu season in at least a dozen years rages in the U.S.
The 2018 flu season is already so deadly that it’s stretching hospital resources to the breaking point in states like California. In fact, Dan Jernigan, director of the influenza division at the national Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, says this flu season represents “the first year we have had the entire continental U.S. be the same color on the [flu tracking] graph, meaning there is widespread activity in all of the continental U.S. at this point.” Public health officials say the flu outbreak may be peaking right now; but since flu season can last into May, millions of more people may get sick (and tens or hundreds of thousands more hospitalized) before all is said and done. The dominant H3N2 strain of the flu going around in 2018 is a particularly nasty one, especially for older Americans, and several more strains like H1N1 are expected to arise within the next few months.
Part of what makes outbreaks like the 2018 flu season so difficult to control is the imperfection of current flu vaccination methods. This year’s vaccine may only be about 30% to 40% effective (although public health officials still strongly urge all Americans who can to get a flu shot, no matter how late into the season). In any given year, flu vaccine effectiveness ranges from about 40% to 60%. And a major factor is that scientists must try to predict which strains of the flu will be most dominant months ahead of peak flu, since millions of vaccine doses need to be created in time for the fall. Their projections, however educated, aren’t always correct. And the flu virus itself can always evolve.
A universal flu vaccine would theoretically address this problem by attacking the parts of the influenza virus which don’t change over time, thus offering longer protection against more strains. That’s what Vaccitech, which was founded by Oxford University scientists, is attempting to do with its vaccine technology—attack proteins at the flu virus’ core rather than the dynamic ones on its surface and stimulate immune T-cells rather than antibodies. The universal vaccine is moving into mid-stage trials, which means successful studies could lead to a commercial launch by the mid-2020s, according to Vaccitech CEO Tom Evans.
This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.