“It could potentially protect someone for a whole lifetime,” Palese said.
The number of people who have the flu in the U.S. is at epidemic levels, according to the CDC, with widespread activity reported in at least 43 states. With this year’s strain especially virulent, 26 children have died from flu complications so far this season. The agency is also part of another group working on a universal vaccine, a CDC spokeswoman told ABC News.
Schaffner described the influenza virus as a sphere with “a bunch of lollipops on stems sticking out of it.” The “sucker” part of the lollipop changes from year to year but the stem parts do not, Schaffner said. The universal vaccine would attack the stem portions of the virus, theoretically protecting against all strains, he said.
“A universal vaccine is the Holy Grail and the prospects of what this could do for medicine is staggering,” Schaffner said, adding that while hopeful, questions remain about how effective such a vaccine will be.
“So far no one has been able to develop a vaccine that works against every type of flu,” said Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News chief health and medical editor. “I’d urge caution until scientists present data showing they’ve really been able to achieve this.”
Palese said the Mount Sinai team was hopeful the vaccine would work.
“We really hope it will be effective on humans -- but of course the jury is still out,” he said.
Learn how the flu spreads and how to protect you and your family. Join today’s ABC News Health tweet chat today at 1 p.m. ET. Here’s how.