TIME flu

Scientists Can Now Predict the Flu

Girl in bed with thermometer in mouth
Girl in bed with thermometer in mouth Getty Images

A mathematical model could make future seasons' vaccines more accurate

Researchers have figured out a formula that can predict the evolution of the seasonal flu for the next year.

In a study published in the journal Nature, researchers from Columbia University and the University of Cologne looked at the way the common H3N2 flu virus mutated and changed throughout the years since 1968. Based off that data, they created a mathematical model that accurately predicts how the virus will change in the future.

The seasonal H3N2 influenza accounts for about half a million deaths every year. To determine what flu strains should be included in the vaccine each year, health experts study the virus, how it changes, and its frequency. The prediction model that researchers have now come up with is significant because it could make the shot you get every season even more accurate, and thus flu-resistant.

To create their model, the researchers looked at the viruses circulating in a given season and its genomes, as well as how many people those viruses infected. Some of the viruses’ adaptive mutations, which occur in what is called the haemagglutinin protein of a virus, were shown to increase the virus’ life and growth, whereas others crippled it.

By examining every strain of the virus through the decades, the study’s authors formulated an equation. More weight was given to mutations that were likely to boost the virus, and the strain’s strength was determined by factoring in its growth rate. When researchers went back and compared their estimates to various years, they found their formula to be highly accurate.

The results of the study have to be replicated before they can begin to be applied to our real-world seasonal vaccines, but the study’s authors say they hope that a more precise prediction method could lead to a highly protective vaccine. And, likely, so does anyone crippled by the flu this season.

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