Influenza virus infection is an ongoing health and economic burden causing epidemics with pandemic potential, affecting 5–30% of the global population annually, and is responsible for millions of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths each year. Annual influenza vaccination is the primary prophylactic countermeasure aimed at limiting influenza burden. However, the effectiveness of current influenza vaccines are limited because they only confer protective immunity when there is antigenic similarity between the selected vaccine strains and circulating influenza isolates. The major targets of the antibody response against influenza virus are the surface glycoprotein antigens hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA). Hypervariability of the amino acid sequences encoding HA and NA is largely responsible for epidemic and pandemic influenza outbreaks, and are the consequence of antigenic drift or shift, respectively. For this reason, if an antigenic mismatch exists between the current vaccine and circulating influenza isolates, vaccinated people may not be afforded complete protection. There is currently an unmet need to develop an effective “broadly-reactive” or “universal” influenza vaccine capable of conferring protection against both seasonal and newly emerging pre-pandemic strains. A number of novel influenza vaccine approaches are currently under evaluation. One approach is the elicitation of an immune response against the “Achille’s heel” of the virus, i.e. conserved viral proteins or protein regions shared amongst seasonal and pre-pandemic strains. Alternatively, other approaches aim toward eliciting a broader immune response capable of conferring protection against the diversity of currently circulating seasonal influenza strains.
In this review, the most promising under-development universal vaccine approaches are discussed with an emphasis on those targeting the HA glycoprotein. In particular, their strengths and potential short-comings are discussed. Ultimately, the upcoming clinical evaluation of these universal vaccine approaches will be fundamental to determine their effectiveness against preventing influenza virus infection and/or reducing transmission and disease severity.