URMC, RGH join trial to test Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA flu vaccine

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Flu season is approaching. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates nearly three to five million people around the world get severe cases of the flu each year.

While flu shots have been around for almost a century now, doctors say they are typically only about 50% effective. The Rochester medical community is conducting a clinical trial they say was inspired by lessons learned from COVID-19.

“We’re very hopeful that using this technique we can improve flu vaccine efficacy, Dr. Ann Falsey, professor of infectious disease and co-director of vaccine and treatment evaluation unit at URMC, said.

Taking a page from the COVID-19 playbook, Pfizer and BioNTech are using mRNA technology used with the COVID-19 vaccine and applying it to the flu vaccine. mRNA is the set of instructions in which cells make all proteins and send them to various parts of the body.

“Your body is tricked into thinking you have the infection but you don’t and it makes antibodies against that messenger RNA, which is now translated into a protein and that’s what’s so clever about this is you can do that with any virus,” Falsey said.

She says the flu vaccine is good but is outdated, and there is room for lots of advancement.

‘The Pfizer COVID vaccine has been extraordinarily successful, very effective, so they’re trying to capitalize on the same technology and really improve flu vaccine because the flu every year has been with us, and it makes a lot of people sick and people end up in the hospital and die from the flu, as well,” Falsey said.

She is joining two other doctors in leading the phase one trial with the hopes of finishing up just in time for flu season, which she says never completely goes away.

“I don’t think we expect to see brand new flu strains," Falsey said. "We do expect, at some point, all the usual suspects will be back, and there is a concern that because it’s been almost completely suppressed for 18 months that people will be a little less immune because they didn’t get it last year,"

Phase one of the clinical trial will determine whether the flu vaccine is safe and effective. Doctors are looking for 50 volunteers ages 65 and 85 to sign up for the trial over two months.

More information on the trial can be found here.