North Carolina

Duke University in line for potential $400 million grant to find a universal flu shot

Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute could get one of the university’s largest ever grants, after a federally funded institution gave it contracts to research a potential “universal” flu shot.

Duke announced Monday that it had received three research contracts to study the influenza shot from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which will guarantee the university just under $30 million in its first year of funding.

But the program could pay Duke up to $400 million over seven years, if options on all three contracts are extended.

The influenza virus kills about 300,000 to 500,000 people worldwide every year. Shawn Rocco Shawn Rocco/Duke Health

That would be the largest federal contract award supporting one program in Duke’s history, the university said.

The Duke Human Vaccine Institute usually has a budget of $25 million to $30 million, said Dr. Tony Moody, who works at the institute.

“So it is not an insignificant addition,” he said in a phone interview.

The Human Vaccine Institute was founded in 1985 and made its name researching vaccines for HIV and AIDS — though its purview has now extended to a host of other viruses like influenza, Ebola and malaria. It has had longstanding partnerships with the government on research.

“Our experience in HIV leads directly to our being able to join the universal flu vaccine effort and impact it immediately,” Dr. Barton Haynes, the director of the institute, said in a statement.

NIAID is doling out hundreds of millions of dollars to institutions around the country to improve the flu vaccine, with the hopes that a “universal” vaccine can be developed.

Influenza is one of the most deadly viruses in the world, killing 300,000 to 500,000 people worldwide every year. The flu vaccine is one of the biggest protections against the virus, which infects up to 5 million people per year, but current vaccines do not protect against every strain of the virus.

That requires scientists to make new formulations of the flu shot every year — usually based on predictions of what is likely to be prevalent during the flu season, which in the U.S. usually starts in October and peaks in December or January.

“We have to pick [the vaccine] six to nine months in advance to make enough of the vaccine to get it ready for the vaccine season,” Moody said. “You have to look into a crystal ball and predict the future and we are not always good at that.”

Dr. Tony Moody of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute Jared Lazarus Duke Photography

But the basic idea of the funding is to make the next generation of these vaccines better than they have been, he said, whether that means covering more strains, learning more about how viruses can jump from animals to humans or making vaccines that elderly and younger populations respond better to.

Whether or not Duke gets the full $400 million in grants will depend upon how much progress the institute makes in its trials and research and how many vaccine candidates go into manufacturing, Moody said.

The federal money should speed up research into the flu vaccine. Moody hopes that having this guaranteed funding stream will shave years off the amount of time it takes for an idea to turn into actually manufacturing and experimentation. Already, the institute is planning vaccine trials with the money.

“The last 100 years [of research] has generated a lot of ideas,” Moody said. “Now we can use modern ideas and techniques to test ideas and really interrogate them in ways we haven’t been able to do before.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.