Influenza viruses are believed to have sparked at least 14 human pandemics in the past 500 years; the most devastating of which began in 1918. Yet, despite intense study and considerable advances in public health, virus surveillance and virology, there is no simple answer to this pressing question: when and how will the next flu pandemic arise?
NIAID scientists consider the many potential pathways to future influenza pandemics in a new viewpoints essay in Science Translational Medicine. There are no hard and fast ‘rules’ specifying, for example, what characteristics a given avian influenza virus must possess to allow it to efficiently infect people and other mammals, the authors note. Instead, “current and historical evidence suggests that pandemics result from highly variable, and extremely rare, viral adaptational phenomena that can be understood only in hindsight.”
In the face of this humbling reality, the authors conclude, preparation for future pandemics must include basic research into ‘host switching’ and how the virus adapts to new hosts; expanded surveillance of viral emergence at the animal-human interface; and continued efforts to develop broadly protective vaccines.
Many potential pathways to future pandemic influenza. Science Translational Medicine, 18 Oct 2023.