GALVESTON, Texas – Researchers from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston have made the first prediction of how well the influenza vaccine will work prior to flu season using computational analysis. They predict that next year’s flu vaccine will not be as effective as last year’s vaccine was. The findings, led by UTMB professor Slobodan Paessler, are in F1000 Research.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that up to 646,000 people worldwide die each year from seasonal flu-related respiratory illnesses, with as many as 56,000 deaths within the U.S.

Yearly vaccination is the most effective way to prevent the flu because several flu viruses circulate throughout the world - these change over time and different ones dominate every year. Every year, scientists calculate which strain of the flu virus may dominate and develop vaccines accordingly. However, a vaccine developed to combat a certain combination of viruses may not be as effective if the virus has evolved by the beginning of flu season. The H3N2 flu virus, which is generally more “vaccine resistant” than other flu viruses, has been dominating flu season for the past 10 years. This was evident during the 2017 Australian flu season, as the flu vaccine was only 10 percent effective.

To improve the 2018 flu vaccine’s performance, the World Health Organization selected a new vaccine virus in September 2017 that was better adapted to H3N2 viruses circulating in the Southern Hemisphere that includes Australia. The WHO selected the same virus for the vaccine for the 2018-2019 flu season in the Northern Hemisphere.

Using a novel electronic biology tool, Paessler and Biomed Protection compared the Australian H3N2 viruses with U.S. H3N2 viruses isolated during the 2017-2018 flu season.

“Our analysis demonstrated significant differences between the two groups of viruses,” said Paessler, a professor in UTMB’s department of pathology. “These data suggest that the effectiveness of the flu vaccine in the U.S. could be very low in the 2018-2019 flu season.”

Paessler said that using the electronic biology platform, he and his colleagues predicted that the flu vaccine in the 2017-2018 flu season in the U.S. could work as well as in the previous season.

“Our prediction for the last flu season has been recently confirmed through laboratory reports released by the CDC,” Paessler said.