A SUPER vaccine that stops the flu virus mutating into more lethal and drug-resistant strains could save millions of lives.
The major discovery could be the key to eradicating the virus after scientists said they may have finally found its “Achilles heel”.
Seasonal flu vaccines are not 100 per cent effective because the virus mutates every winter.
This means new-formula jabs need to be produced each year, giving manufacturers just months to produce sufficient stocks.
Current flu jabs target two proteins on the surface of the virus but they constantly change in a bid to fool the immune system.
The new discovery means a vaccine could be made quickly, in large quantities and be specifically tailored to stop the virus mutating, which would save millions of lives around the world.
When people who have had the flu jab are infected with a strain of the virus not in that year’s vaccine, their body mounts an immune response to prevent them from getting sick.
But that pressure from the immune system can provoke the virus to mutate into a more infectious, deadlier form.
Now a study published online in the Nature journal, called Scientific Reports, reveals the mechanism behind this phenomenon, known as antigenic drift.
The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, US, led by Professor Ram Sasisekharan, analysed the network of amino acids that make up the viral protein haemagglutinin (HA).
They identified which amino acids are most likely to mutate.
Prof Sasisekharan said this knowledge could help scientists produce vaccines that do not include versions of the flu that can mutate and so lead to “fitter” viruses.
Britain’s leading flu expert, virologist Professor John Oxford, of St Bartholomew’s and the Royal London Hospital, said: “Now, for the first time, when we look at selecting a flu virus for use in a vaccine, we can select the one which is least likely to mutate.
“That would lessen the chance of a more infectious mutant strain emerging. Fewer mutants moving around means people would be vaccinated to maximum effect. The more viruses we have moving around, the more problems we have,” he said.
As new strains constantly emerge, the World Health Organisation scours the globe for ones that need to be included in seasonal flu vaccines.
Sometimes large mutations do occur, such as that which led to swine flu.
Last year more than 600 people died in the UK from winter flu in a far more virulent outbreak than had been predicted.
But many Britons still have little immunity to this strain of the virus because of a low uptake of the vaccine that fights it.