According to the CDC, not only did the 2012-2013 flu season begin early, but activity of the virus was considered high. Also, the vaccines for that season were only shown to be only around 56% effective in preventing flu-related doctors’ visits. This is a result of the flu virus changing so quickly as it develops new strains that it’s often likely that the current vaccine is already outdated by the time you get it.
However, University of Massachusetts synthetic biologists have had a breakthrough in creating a quick custom flu vaccine. After receiving a copy of the genetic code for the H7N9 avian flu, the scientists successfully made a vaccine against it in just a week’s time. Considering that such vaccines generally take many weeks, this new technique could save lives and prevent an illness that spreads quickly and has many different strains, all requiring their own individual vaccines.
Robert Finberg, chair of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said “I think it does have great potential for more rapidly preparing vaccines for new strains as they evolve.”
Synthetic biology consists of creating biological materials in a lab without using nature’s normal reproductive methods. For this vaccine, scientists from Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, and the J. Craig Venter Institute built themselves an H7N9 virus simply by looking at its genetic code. Previously, scientists have always been forced to create viruses like this by already having samples of that virus on hand. Once the synthesized H7N9 was created, a vaccine was developed from a "benign" form of that virus, meaning that the virus stimulates the immune system in humans, but doesn’t actually develop into the full-blown flu.
Being able to make the original virus synthetically speeds up the process because electronic copies of the virus’ code can be sent much faster than samples of the actual virus. Because of how quickly flu spreads and new strains appear, this means that flu vaccines may become much more effective at stopping the virus in its tracks.
The next obvious step is performing tests that will get this vaccine technique approved and convince regulatory agencies, like the FDA, that it is safe. We're hoping it'll be in time for next winter.