Predicting the flu

A new open source forecasting tool combines genetic code with experimental data to improve flu vaccine design.
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Image credit: SELF x American Academy of Pediatrics Vaccine Photo Project; Photographer: Heather Hazzan; Wardrobe: Ronald Burton; Props: Campbell Pearson; Hair: Hide Suzuki; Makeup: Deanna Melluso at See Management. Shot on location at One Medical (CC BY 2.0)

Vaccination is the best protection against seasonal flu. It teaches the immune system what the flu virus looks like, preparing it to fight off an infection. But the flu virus changes its molecular appearance every year, escaping the immune defences learnt the year before. So, every year, the vaccine needs updating. Since it takes almost a year to design and make a new flu vaccine, researchers need to be able to predict what flu viruses will look like in the future. Currently, this prediction relies on experiments that assess the molecular appearance of flu viruses, a complex and slow approach.

One alternative is to examine the virus's genetic code. Mathematical models try to predict which genetic changes might alter the appearance of a flu virus, saving the cost of performing specialised experiments. Recent research has shown that these models can make good predictions, but including experimental measures of the virus’ appearance could improve them even further. This could help the model to work out which genetic changes are likely to be beneficial to the virus, and which are not.

To find out whether experimental data improves model predictions, Huddleston et al. designed a new forecasting tool which used 25 years of historical data from past flu seasons. Each forecast predicted what the virus population might look like the next year using the previous year's genetic code, experimental data, or both. Huddleston et al. then compared the predictions with the historical data to find the most useful data types. This showed that the best predictions combined changes from the virus's genetic code with experimental measures of its appearance.

This new forecasting tool is open source, allowing teams across the world to start using it to improve their predictions straight away. Seasonal flu infects between 5 and 15% of the world's population every year, causing between quarter of a million and half a million deaths. Better predictions could lead to better flu vaccines and fewer illnesses and deaths.