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Universal flu vaccine remains ‘an alchemist’s dream’

NASHVILLE — What if instead of lining up for a flu shot of unknown effectiveness each fall, people could receive one vaccine that protects against all strains and lasts for many years, if not for life. It could spare incalculable amounts of suffering, and even eliminate terrifying pandemics. Scientists have spent decades trying to concoct such a “universal” flu vaccine and, at times, they seem to have made solid headway. But it remains an “alchemist’s dream,” as one virologist declared last month at a gathering on the topic organized by the Human Vaccines Project, a nonprofit based in New York City.

An infusion of funding has boosted the research: $160 million next year from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, up from $60 million 2 years ago. But the effort is an exercise in humility, several leading flu researchers acknowledged at the meeting. “Every year we learn that we know less and less about this virus,” says Martin Friede, a biochemist who coordinates the Initiative for Vaccine Research at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

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