President Trump, who in the past was skeptical of immunizations, has now expressed enthusiasm about the development of a universal flu vaccine. On Monday, in a STAT News interview with Bill Gates, the philanthropist reported that in a meeting last month, he had told Trump that it might be possible to prevent all strains of the flu with a single vaccine. The president, he said, was “super interested,” and even called Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb to ask about it.
That’s quite a departure. In 2015, Trump said, “I don’t like the idea of injecting bad stuff into [my] body,” adding, “I have friends that religiously get the flu shot and then they get the flu.”
(That’s false, by the way. But people often feel some flu symptoms from their body’s immune response to the shot.)
The Trump administration certainly hasn’t prioritized flu immunization research. Although the idea of a universal flu vaccine might be new to Trump, scientists who receive federal funding have been working on it for decades. In February, in the midst of a particularly brutal flu season, I wrote about how woefully underfunded these researchers are, and how the Trump administration had threatened to slash their budgets further.
So does Trump’s alleged enthusiasm bode well for researchers? Michael Osterholm, a flu researcher and the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, doesn’t want to speculate. “It’s gratifying to see many parties now talking about the need for a game-changing influenza vaccine—we’ve come a long way in this discussion,” he told me. But it’s going to take a lot more than talk. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Osterholm pointed out that while the federal government spends about $1 billion a year on HIV vaccine research, in 2017 it dedicated just $43 million to studying a universal flu vaccine. This is despite the fact that flu now kills far more Americans than HIV/AIDS.
“Just $10 million here and $10 million there is not going to do it,” Osterholm told me. “Tomorrow we could have another pandemic, and we’re going to pay a heavy price if we’re not prepared.”