Trenton, N.J. — Early research in older adults found an experimental vaccine prevented nearly two-thirds of serious cases of a common, seasonal respiratory virus that annually kills thousands of vulnerable Americans — babies and senior citizens.
If further testing by vaccine developer Novavax Inc. goes well, in a few years the biotech company’s genetically engineered shot could become the first vaccine approved against respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
“It could be a major breakthrough,” said Dr. Andrew Pavia, a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, cautioning that the preliminary study’s results must be duplicated in more people. “It’s not time to break out the champagne.”
There’s no specific treatment for RSV, and drugmakers for the last half-century have unsuccessfully tried to create a vaccine. In the U.S., it infects virtually every child by age 2, is the top cause of infant hospitalizations and kills an estimated 11,000 to 14,000 people 60 and older each year. Worldwide, it causes more than 30 million lower respiratory infection episodes and kills roughly 175,000 children under age 5 annually.
The virus circulates each year from mid-fall through spring, usually causing mild cold symptoms or none at all in healthy adolescents and adults, who are mostly protected by immunity built up from childhood exposure.
It’s a different story for those at the beginning or end of life, whose immune systems are just revving up or are sputtering out, and for others with weak immune systems, such as bone marrow transplant and cancer patients and people with uncontrolled HIV.
In the U.S., RSV only kills several hundred children each year because of widespread availability of supplemental oxygen and other supportive medical care.
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