NIAID experts laud benefits of sequencing 1918 influenza strain

Experts from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and other medical institutions recently asserted that the genetic sequencing and reconstruction of the 1918 influenza virus strain has yielded critical information on how to potentially control future pandemics.

Researchers have been able to determine that subsequent influenza pandemics in 1957, 1968 and 2009 are descended, at least in part, from the 1918 strain, which caused the deaths of 50 million people worldwide.

Before the 2009 pandemic, studies confirmed structural similarities between the 1918 and 2009 strains that aided scientists in understanding why younger people who had never been exposed to the 1918 virus or its early descendants were more susceptible.

As a result, public health officials were able to reserve their limited vaccine supplies for those who had the greatest need. In this case, it was predominantly younger people, not the elderly, who are traditionally the most important target group for critical vaccinations.

Vaccine developers have used information about the physical structure of the 1918 strain to help identify portions of the influenza virus that are consistent across multiple strains, which has aided in the creation of new universal flu vaccine candidates.

In addition, by comparing the sequenced 1918 virus to influenza viruses in animals, researchers have learned critical information about some of the changes necessary for the virus to adapt from an animal to a human host. Researchers used this information to target their surveillance of certain influenza viruses that are more likely to move to humans and possibly trigger future pandemics.