In the present work, we conducted a systematic review to estimate the protection afforded by mismatched influenza vaccines. Our results show that mismatched vaccines can reduce the risk of PCR or culture-confirmed influenza by 60% for LAIV (95% CI 44% to 71%) and by 56% for TIV (95% CI 43% to 66%). These results suggest a benefit of vaccines in preventing laboratory-confirmed influenza even when there is a mismatch between vaccine composition and circulating strains. For matched influenza, point estimates for VE were slightly higher for both the LAIV (77%, 95% CI 67% to 86%) and the TIV (65%, 95% CI 57% to 72%), versus mismatched point estimates. However, there was substantial overlap in the CIs for matched and mismatched estimates in some instances; the impact of this overlap could not be formally tested via meta-analyses techniques.
A previous systematic review on a similar topic did not report the results separately for matched or mismatched strains [2
]. A Cochrane review among healthy adults found a VE for TIV non-WHO matching strains (including when the specific strains are unknown) of 44% (95% CI 23% to 59%) [6
]. This result was based on six influenza seasons from four RCTs. A VE of 68% (95% CI 44% to 81%) was observed for LAIV non-WHO matching strains (including when the specific strains are unknown), based on four point estimates from three RCTs [6
]. Our review is based on an additional 13 RCTs and we have included more than double the data for both LAIV and TIV compared to the Cochrane review. Furthermore, here we have followed a rigorous process of identifying matched and mismatched data, which has not been attempted in previous reviews. Our results are consistent with those found in a pooled observational study including 5 years of data [53
We found that the LAIV was more efficacious among children versus adults, which is likely a reflection of the difference in previously acquired influenza infections between age groups and the consequently larger amount of pre-vaccination antibody, which affects the live vaccine. However, we found higher point estimates for adults versus children for mismatched LAIV estimates. This finding might suggest that there might be a possible discrepancy in the degree of matching, which may have impacted our results. Specifically, trials conducted among children may have had a greater degree of mismatch than those conducted among adults. Unfortunately, the current analysis does not allow the degree of mismatch to be examined. For the purposes of our analysis, we dichotomized cross protection but in reality, the degree of mismatch is a continuum. The cross protection inferred by mismatch strains should be analyzed as a continuum in the future.
The results from our secondary outcome analysis were often inconsistent with our primary outcome results. This inconsistency is likely due to differences in sensitivity and specificity of different laboratory tests over time. Indeed, the most reliable diagnostic test for clinical practice is PCR so the results from our primary outcome should be considered the most valid [54
Our results are generalizable to seasonal influenza, as most of the included studies reported on this type of influenza. Only one of the included RCTs occurred during the influenza pandemic [51
]. When this study was removed via sensitivity analysis, we did not observe any differences on our meta-analysis results.
We identified three RCTs reporting data among seniors [33
], yet none reported our primary outcome of interest or provided data on mismatched influenza. This finding is consistent with previous influenza reviews, for which few RCTs were identified among this age group [2
]. Future RCTs are needed in this area to provide patients, healthcare providers, and health policymakers with guidance related to vaccination among seniors during seasons when the vaccine composition does not match circulating strains [5
There are a few limitations in the evidence base summarized for this review. Many of the trials had an unclear risk of bias because of poor reporting. However, we did note improvements in risk of bias over time that may be because of uptake of the Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT Statement), providing guidance on what should be reported in RCTs [56
]. Enhanced reporting of outcome definitions might be due to clinical trial registry requirements for trials. We also noted that more trials in this area were funded by industry over time.
Another potential limitation is that although unpublished data was only obtained from six RCTs (Additional file 4
), no data were obtained from unpublished RCTs. This finding suggests that we might be missing data from unpublished trials. However, we contacted many trial authors for unpublished data and searched trial registries (for example, meta
-Register) to identify potentially relevant unpublished RCTs. Furthermore, our funnel plots did not suggest that publication bias influenced our results [23
A critical limitation, which may have influenced our results, is the determination of mismatch between circulating strains and those found in the vaccine. Characterizing strains as antigenically similar or distinct using HI assay or ferret antisera might be insensitive, leading to misclassification of strains [57
]. Residual misclassification of matching due to the limited discriminatory ability of H1 assays may have also explained some of our findings, and is a limitation of the inferences that can be made. Furthermore, the cut-off values recommended by the CDC to distinguish between match and mismatch strains using the HI assay changed during the study period across the included RCTs, although most of the studies included here used a fourfold quotient HI cut-off (Table ). As such, some of the data from trials labeled as matched might actually have been mismatched [58
], and vice versa.