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UC Riverside researchers develop potential universal vaccine strategy

Getting vaccinated for the flu or COVID-19 doesn’t guarantee full protection because viruses are always changing. Despite yearly efforts to update flu vaccines to match prevalent virus strains, their effectiveness varies between 40% and 60% as viruses mutate.

Researchers at University of California, Riverside, introduced a new vaccine strategy that they said promises to be effective against any virus strain, potentially eliminating the need for yearly shots or boosters.

UC Riverside virologist Rong Hai said instead of targeting a unique feature of a virus — usually a protein — his approach targets genetic material common to all viruses.


Hai said delivering the vaccine through the nose in a spray also has an advantage as it follows the same path as respiratory illnesses.

He thinks it will help people gain trust for vaccine technology for those who have doubts about vaccinations.

“I truly believe vaccine is the best means to protect us for future potential pandemic,” Hai said.

Traditional vaccines rely on the body's immune response to fight off viruses, but Hai said this can be challenging for babies and those with weak immune systems. This new vaccine method uses tiny molecules called RNA — that everyone produces — to fight off infections.

Most vaccines are designed to offer some protection, mainly against severe illness and death said Dr. Francesca Torriani, an infectious disease specialist with UC San Diego Health.


“This methodology would appear to provide full protection, which means ... not only I don't get infected, but also I can't infect others,” Torriani said. She is not involved with this new vaccine research.

Torriani said a universal vaccine could help break the recurring cycle of infections, but wondered if that protection comes with a price.

“It is a good thing that sometimes we have these childhood diseases, infections and we build a certain immunity. But we also provide, you know, some other benefits, maybe, of being exposed to multiple viruses and having mild disease,” Torriani said.

For now, a vaccine Hai produced using this method worked in mice. The next step is to see how humans respond, although that might be a few years away.