Scientists Working on Combo Flu and COVID-19 Vaccine

by Amy Myers

Scientists and medical authorities are predicting that COVID-19 boosters will become an annual necessity for some, and as a result, they are working to combine the yearly booster with the influenza shot to create a single vaccination for both viruses.

Companies like Moderna and Pfizer have already announced their plans to begin working on this project, however, it’s not likely that the combo vaccine will be ready until 2023. That means for this flu season, we’ll still need to get separate shots.

While it’s true that the COVID-19 vaccination’s effect fades over time, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will need a yearly booster. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, right now, it doesn’t seem that Americans need a fourth vaccine (assuming that they’ve received the first two initial doses, as well as the first booster). However, as we know, with more research, this thinking may change.

“I think we first have to assess the long-term need for annual COVID vaccines,” said Dr. Anna Durbin, director of Center for Immunization Research at Johns Hopkins University, per ABC News.

She continued, “if there is a continued need for COVID vaccines, then combining that with influenza would make sense.”

Scientists Face Technological Obstacles in Creating COVID-19 Combo Vaccine

Creating the COVID-flu combo vaccine isn’t as easy as mixing the two separate substances in a beaker and giving it a swirl. There are actually several technological obstacles that scientists must overcome in order to successfully administer both to a patient. According to Durbin, the two vaccines require two completely different scientific approaches to create.

“Right now, the influenza vaccine is a different platform,” said Durbin. 

Most influenza vaccines in the U.S. use dead or weakened viruses that trigger the body’s immune system which then attacks foreign bodies. COVID-19, on the other hand, is an mRNA (or messenger RNA) vaccine. That means that the vaccine teaches the body to create proteins which then trigger the body’s immune response. Unlike the method used for influenza, this means that the vaccine must be administered in separate rounds. Currently, Moderna and Pfizer are the two companies that use the mRNA method.

There is also another obstacle that stands in the way of the COVID-flu shot. The influenza shot is quadrivalent, which means it protects against four different strains.

“This means the combined influenza/COVID vaccine would also likely need to be quadrivalent or at least trivalent. That makes the vaccine more complicated,” says Durbin.

And, not to mention, new strains of COVID may develop, too, posing even more complications for scientists.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to try to develop these vaccines, but it may take a bit of time,” Durbin said.