Last week Bill Gates pledged $12 million toward the development of a universal flu vaccine. The announcement followed a particularly bad flu season for the U.S., and also coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic that killed between 50 million and 100 million people back in 1918.

There has been much ado around the fact that, despite scientists’ efforts to optimize it each year, our current flu vaccine remains woefully inadequate because it can only target a few strains of the volatile virus. A universal version of the vaccine would seem to be the ideal solution to this problem but, Gates’s investment notwithstanding, it remains well out of reach for now.

A recent study, however, may point toward a more immediate improvement to the current model. In Scientific American’s recent special report on the future of medicine, Dina Fine Maron describes how a team of researchers from the U.S. and China developed a technique for disarming many more strains of the flu than the current vaccine allows.

The graphic below shows how the new vaccine works and how it differs from our existing approach to fighting the flu. It is not quite the universal remedy that scientists are ultimately hoping for, but this work may represent a significant advance in our ongoing effort to prevent the next Spanish flu pandemic.


Credit: Tami Tolpa