As our species strives desperately to master its biology, scientists say a new mathematical model may help to better predict the evolution of influenza viruses to develop more accurate vaccines for flu season.

In a new study, researchers from Columbia University and the University of Cologne analyzed the evolutionary pattern of the N3N2 influenza virus since 1968 to develop a forecasting model capable of predicting the year ahead. In the United States, some 36,000 people die of seasonal influenza viruses every year, with a half-million perishing around the globe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Beyond seasonal varieties also lies the continuous threat of a global influenza pandemic, such as the 2009 H1N1 outbreak that killed a quarter-million people in 11 developing countries, a mere echo of the 1918 pandemic that killed 50 million worldwide.

Influenza Still Threatens 21st Century World
Nearly a century after the 1918 influenza pandemic, scientists say improved mathematical modeling is helping to better predict the evolution of the virus, potentially leading to more accurate seasonal vaccines. CC By 2.0

As always, U.S. health officials warned Americans at the outset of this year’s flu season. “We have known for years that the flu is a serious disease, especially for people with certain chronic health conditions,” Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general of the U.S.Public Health Service, said last fall.

In our time, influenza continues to pose a grave threat to human health as increased air travel brings us closer together, exposing more of us to quick-evolving, deadly infectious diseases. In an eternal arms race, scientists strive to accelerate forecasting and drug development to meet the challenge. In creating this latest model, the research team analyzed the genomics of a variety of seasonal flu strains, in addition to the disease pathology — or its route through the human herd. By watching genetic mutations in the haemagglutinin protein and elsewhere, the researchers were able to pinpoint targets for coming vaccines.

Yet, researchers say the findings must be confirmed by further study ahead of new drug development.

Source: Rasmussen, David A., Koelle, Katia, Koelle. Influenza: Prediction Is Worth A Shot. Nature. 2014.