Washington University scientists are identifying genetic features of flu viruses to investigate how to predict flu pandemics.
In a study published in the Nature Communications journal, researchers Jacco Boon, Graham Williams, and Sebla Kutluay write that focusing on the genetic makeup of a flu virus can determine how they replicate and mutate.
“Pandemic influenza viruses are often emerging from two different strains of influenza viruses,” said Boon, an assistant professor of medicine at Wash U and the senior author of the study. “But exactly how these two viruses mix and how bad the very bad pandemic viruses emerge from that is very much unknown.”
Boon said the research team took a different approach from previous studies by looking into the genetic makeup of the virus.
“We speculated that there are certain signals in the genome of the virus that would actually promote or prevent certain viruses from emerging,” he said.
The researchers focused on the ribonucleic acid molecule of the genome. When a cell is infected by several strains of the flu, the RNA molecules of one strain can combine with the RNA molecules of another strain. Once combined, a new virus is formed and that new virus can potentially lead to a pandemic.
A pandemic occurs when viruses are created from a hybrid of several viruses and spread across the globe. Pandemics differ from the more common epidemics, which are expected by medical officials.
“An epidemic is reserved for the seasonal influenza virus, like the one that is occurring right now,” Boon said. “It is very aggressive and it’s an unusual season, but we know this virus. We’ve seen it before; it comes every year.”
It is increasingly difficult to know how dangerous a pandemic can become prior to the outbreak, but because of modern antivirals and technology, there are methods to reduce the probability of these outbreaks, Boon said.
To prepare for such outbreaks, health officials run through a variety of scenarios, said Dr. Fredrick Echols of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health. Such scenarios can also include federal outreach if necessary.
“The type of resources that our federal partners such as the CDC can provide through the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services are medication for prophylaxis and other biologics that we may need to make sure that the residents and visitors in our jurisdiction are properly cared for,” said Echols, the department's division director of communicable disease control services.
The last flu pandemic was the 2009 swine flu pandemic which caused 60.8 million cases worldwide.
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