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Forecasting the Shape of Flu Viruses to Come

By October 25, 2018No Comments

As millions of Americans line up for their annual flu shots this fall, scientists around the globe are already planning for the next round. How can they change next year’s vaccines to stop the strains of influenza most likely to emerge in 2019?

The effort to pick new vaccines to block ever-evolving flu viruses requires both science and serendipity. Because it takes so long to manufacture the millions of doses required, world flu experts meet twice a year — six months in advance of flu season for the Northern and Southern hemispheres — to pick the best possible match of vaccine to virus. It is high-stakes, educated guesswork.

At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, a team of scientists led by Drs. Jesse Bloom and Trevor Bedford is working to take some of the guesswork out of the process. The team is doing so via a deep analysis of the constant evolutionary changes in the flu virus and by building computer models to anticipate influenza’s next tricky move — like the way weather forecasters use computers to plot the most likely paths of hurricanes.