Combining genetic and experimental data into models about the influenza virus can help predict more accurately which strains will be most common during the next winter, says a study published recently in eLife.
The models could make the design of flu vaccines more accurate, providing fuller protection against a virus that causes around half a million deaths each year globally.
Vaccines are the best protection we have against the flu. But the virus changes its appearance to our immune system every year, requiring researchers to update the vaccine to match. Since a new vaccine takes almost a year to make, flu researchers must predict which flu viruses look the most like the viruses of the future.
The gold-standard ways of studying influenza involve laboratory experiments looking at a key molecule that coats the virus called haemagglutinin. But these methods are labour-intensive and take a long time. Researchers have focused instead on using computers to predict how the flu virus will evolve from the genetic sequence of haemagglutinin alone, but these data only give part of the picture.
“The influenza research community has long recognised the importance of taking into account physical characteristics of the flu virus, such as how haemagglutinin changes over time, as well as genetic information,” explains lead author John Huddleston, a PhD student in the Bedford Lab at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Molecular and Cell Biology Program at the University of Washington, Seattle, US. “We wanted to see whether combining genetic sequence-only models of influenza evolution with other high-quality experimental measurements could improve the forecasting of the new strains of flu that will emerge one year down the line.”
Huddleston and the team looked at different components of virus ‘fitness’ — that is, how likely the virus is to thrive and continue to evolve.
“Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!” Trump’s tweet and now-deleted Facebook post reads.
Trump on Monday night left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was being treated for covid-19. Earlier in the day, he posted on social media, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” That drew intense criticism online for what many saw as him downplaying the virus that has killed at least 209,000 people in the United States.
Neither Twitter nor Facebook took any action against the Monday post and did not respond to repeated requests for comment asking if it violated their policies against coronavirus misinformation. Both companies have pledged to remove coronavirus misinformation that could lead to physical harm.
Twitter and Facebook have taken harsher action against Trump’s tweets this year. Twitter has labeled several of his tweets for violating its policies, starting with a fact check label in May and immediately drawing the ire of the president for its decision.
But many experts still criticize the companies for not taking harsher action and say the policies are not being enforced consistently.
“There are more tests coming. This should be easy one,” Mike Ananny, an associate professor at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, tweeted Monday after Twitter left Trump’s post untouched.
Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy said Tuesday that Twitter labeled the president’s tweet about the flu for violating its policies by “making misleading health claims about covid-19.” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone confirmed the company had removed the same post.