Scientists create accurate predictor of the next year’s flu virus

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2014-03-03

A schematic of the influenza virus attaching to a cell. The red and blue proteins on its surface are the key determinants of whether a vaccine is effective.

Influenza viruses evolve rapidly, making it hard to develop protective vaccines against them. Despite a great deal of effort, scientists have found it difficult to forecast which way the virus’ evolution would take it. Now, thanks to improvements in our ability to study viruses and a new mathematical model, anticipating influenza’s next move appears possible.

Making the jump

In addition to the rapid evolution of genes within human flu strains, the viruses have the ability to jump from animals to humans, a move that can spark global pandemics like the 2009 swine flu which killed thousands from Mexico to China.

But a pandemic does not always follow from these jumps. For example, there have been numerous reports of humans being infected with the H5N1 bird flu, yet it doesn’t seem to spread from human to human. Researchers are still trying to understand why some influenza viruses are unable to spread within human populations, while others have taken off.

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