There's a push in Washington to spend $1 billion over the next five years to encourage the development of a universal flu vaccine.
The new legislation, proposed by Connecticut U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and several other fellow senators, comes as preliminary figures released Friday suggest the current vaccine is only 36 percent effective.
"It's a really pretty simple concept, but much more difficult to do than describe," Blumenthal said of the universal vaccine.
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The lawmaker unveiled the proposed legislation Saturday at a flu shot clinic in East Hartford. In his home state, 77 deaths have so far been attributed to the flu. Nationally, there can be as many as 56,000 deaths connected to the flu during a bad year.
"Flu is fully preventable and potentially fatal, which makes developing this universal vaccine really a matter of life and death," Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal said a Connecticut company, Protein Sciences in Meriden, is currently among those working on a vaccine, with the help of existing funding from the National Institutes of Health. But he said more federal funding is needed.
Currently, $64 million is provided by NIH, through the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for grants to researchers and manufacturers conducting universal flu research. Blumenthal called that "a pittance" compared to what is needed. Under the proposed legislation, there would be $200 million available annually over five years.
Besides Blumenthal and Markey, Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson, of Florida, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, of Minnesota, and Chris Van Hollen, of Maryland, as well as independent Sen. Angus King, of Maine, have signed on to the legislation.
Most illnesses this winter have been caused by a kind of flu called Type A H3N2. The vaccine was only 25 percent effective against that type. While the vaccine has worked relatively well this year in young children, it performed worse in older people, including vulnerable seniors.
The preliminary estimates were published by the Centers for Disease Control and are based on a relatively small number of people.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC's acting director, said Friday that such information points to a need for better flu vaccines.
"The vaccines that we have today are not the ones that we'd like to have in 10 years," she said.