Pandemics, the rapid spread of infectious diseases to a large number of people within a short period of time and over large regions, are a growing threat to modern mankind. Globalisation and ever faster movement of people and goods mean that previously unknown or mutated strains of the virus can spread rapidly across the globe. Even before the era of globalization, the Spanish flu claimed about 50 million lives during its outbreak 100 years ago. Although the more recent influenza pandemics of 1957, 1968, 1977 and 2009 were milder, they show the great pandemic potential of the viruses. Seasonal influenza alone leads to 290,000 to 650,000 deaths worldwide – every year. Other viruses such as Ebola, Zika or the novel corona virus also have the potential to trigger devastating pandemics worldwide.
Vaccinations are the best prevention against epidemics and pandemics. However, current influenza vaccines are comparatively ineffective: the virus changes its surface frequently and so quickly that current vaccine development methods are simply too slow. By the time the vaccines are ready for distribution – about 6 months after strain identification – the viruses