New model provides real-time pandemic info

Mathematicians have created a new tool that can be used with modern laboratory techniques to help healthcare systems plan a more efficient response to pandemic disease outbreaks.

Researchers at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom created a model that can quantify the spread of infectious viruses in real-time to help predict the impact of an outbreak as it strikes, according to

The university study showed that during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak it was difficult to detect where the virus was moving because it caused severe symptoms in some people, including death, and in others, symptoms were so mild that they were often overlooked.

In the U.K., the main source of information about the 2009 outbreak came from direct laboratory testing of nose and throat swabs taken from those who went to the doctor with symptoms of the virus.

Tracking the virus in this manner has been shown to underestimate the number cases because many of those with the virus did not go to the doctor. Large-scale blood testing taken during the outbreak showed that up to 90 percent of cases were missed. While blood testing is more accurate, it is also more costly and too slow to offer critical real-time data.

The newly developed mathematics-based tool can be used in conjunction with other methods to give a real-time picture of the virus' spread at any stage of the infection. The model looks at households where one member is confirmed as having the virus, and then extrapolates the possible infection rate among others living in the same household, reports.

The study determined that a large number of people in a given household were likely to have had the infection even though they did not have a positive swab. This can happen if a person has recovered before the swab was taken. The researchers also determined that transmission rates between two people decreased with increasing household size.

The findings were directly related to the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, but the mathematicians believe they can be applied to any future pandemic situation.

"Clearly large-scale blood sampling has an important role to play when faced with an outbreak of a new virus," Dr. Thomas House of the Mathematics Institute at the University of Warwick said, reports. "But our method provides another extremely fast and cheap-to-deploy weapon in the armory - and the more tools we have for combating the spread of pandemic flu the better.

"We are confident that we can now use this model to keep tabs on future pandemics as they are unfolding."