It is easy to forget the terror that polio inspired in every generation of parents until the middle of the last century. While decades have passed since the development of polio vaccines by Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, time has not dimmed this remarkable accomplishment — vanquishing a disease in most areas of the globe that once crippled 35,000 people in the United States each year.
This year’s severe flu season is a reminder that fearsome diseases remain unconquered. Towering among them: the easily transmissible influenza virus, which circles the globe each year and can mutate rapidly, with new strains having the potential to create another deadly worldwide epidemic like the 1918 “Spanish flu” that killed millions.
The current annual flu shot barely keeps up with this crafty virus. What’s needed is a new vaccine that stymies the virus on the same scale as the polio vaccine — and doesn’t require a new shot every year. This is a massive scientific undertaking but one that is doable with robust resources and global leadership. It reflects well on Minnesota that its policymakers and scientists are at the forefront of pushing for what is known as the “universal flu vaccine.”
This week, Minnesota’s two senators — Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith — announced that they are among the eight Senate champions of a bill to dramatically increase flu vaccine funding. The Flu Vaccine Act would provide a total of $1 billion from 2019 to 2023 for dedicated research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). According to CIDRAP News, an infectious-disease news service at the University of Minnesota, about $64 million was spent on universal flu vaccine research last year.
It is concerning that no Republicans have co-sponsored the legislation. Because the party controls both the House and Senate, broadening support is necessary. GOP leaders shouldn’t shy away from this. Basic research funded by the NIH typically provides the scientific foundation that the private sector builds on to develop new medical treatments. Both NIH research grants and the work done by private industry create high-paying jobs in Minnesota and other states.
Michael Osterholm, a well-known infectious-disease specialist, lauded the legislation. But he also cautioned that it is but one of the many steps needed to make a next-generation shot a reality. Osterholm continues to estimate that around $1 billion a year is needed. He also continues to call for a bigger, more formal management framework — one similar to that employed by the Manhattan Project to speed atomic bomb development — to marshal international expertise and resources.
While this would be a massive undertaking, it’s important to remember that creating a polio vaccine once seemed just as daunting. This is a matter of harnessing America’s economic and scientific might and convincing other nations to join Team Next-Gen Flu Shot. It’s notable that Osterholm, normally known for sounding the alarm about emerging infectious threats, is an optimist when it comes to the universal flu vaccine: “We can do this.”