The role of genomics in tracking the evolution of influenza A virus

Alice Carolyn McHardy, Ben Adams

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Influenza A virus causes annual epidemics and occasional pandemics of short-term respiratory infections associated with considerable morbidity and mortality. The pandemics occur when new human-transmissible viruses that have the major surface protein of influenza A viruses from other host species are introduced into the human population. Between such rare events, the evolution of influenza is shaped by antigenic drift: the accumulation of mutations that result in changes in exposed regions of the viral surface proteins. Antigenic drift makes the virus less susceptible to immediate neutralization by the immune system in individuals who have had a previous influenza infection or vaccination. A biannual reevaluation of the vaccine composition is essential to maintain its effectiveness due to this immune escape. The study of influenza genomes is key to this endeavor, increasing our understanding of antigenic drift and enhancing the accuracy of vaccine strain selection. Recent large-scale genome sequencing and antigenic typing has considerably improved our understanding of influenza evolution: epidemics around the globe are seeded from a reservoir in East-Southeast Asia with year-round prevalence of influenza viruses; antigenically similar strains predominate in epidemics worldwide for several years before being replaced by a new antigenic cluster of strains. Future in-depth studies of the influenza reservoir, along with large-scale data mining of genomic resources and the integration of epidemiological, genomic, and antigenic data, should enhance our understanding of antigenic drift and improve the detection and control of antigenically novel emerging strains.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1000566
JournalPLoS Pathogens
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2009


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