Researchers at the University of Helsinki have developed a new, simple approach for reliable real-time tracking and prediction of viral evolution based on whole-genome sequences of influenza viruses.
The team analyzed thousands of complete genome sequences of influenza A(H1N1) and A(H3N2) strains representing different geographic regions. By utilizing biostatistical methods, they were able to identify several genetic variants that changed the structure of the influenza proteins and that were present in surprisingly many of the strains studied.
“We named these characteristic variants as evolutionary markers as they seemed to contain valuable information regarding the viral evolution,” explained Denis Kainov, the leader of the research team.
The group was able to show that both influenza subtypes acquired their own sets of these evolutionary markers. Importantly, many of these markers were not present in the virus strains used for the vaccine development during the last season.
“We believe that our results and methodology could further improve vaccine strain selection process and, thereby, enhance vaccine efficacy,” Kainov continues. “We estimated that if the vaccination efficacy increases by 50%, this would save up to 8 000 people from getting the disease in Finland alone.”
The team is proposing use of the strains containing all the identified evolutionary markers as vaccine candidates for upcoming influenza seasons.
The study was done in collaboration with researchers from Singapore and United Kingdom.