Genetic information on more than 2,000 human and avian influenza viruses are now available to researchers via a public database, the Influenza Genome Sequencing Project announced in February.
The information is expected to help scientists understand how flu viruses evolve and spread and to help them develop new vaccines.
"Scientists around the world can use the sequence data to compare different strains of the virus, identify the genetic factors that determine their virulence and look for new therapeutic, vaccine and diagnostic targets," said Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funds the Influenza Genome Sequencing Project.
Seasonal influenza is a major public health concern in the United States, accounting for about 36,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations each year. An even greater concern is the potential for an influenza pandemic caused by the emergence of a new, highly lethal virus strain that is easily transmitted from person to person. Influenza pandemics have occurred three times in the last century, the most lethal of which occurred in 1918, causing an estimated 40 million to 50 million deaths around the globe.
"A few years ago, only limited genetic information on influenza viruses existed in the public domain, and much of the sequence data was incomplete," says Maria Y. Giovanni, PhD, who oversees NIAID's Microbial Sequencing Centers. "The Influenza Genome Sequencing Project has filled that gap by vastly increasing the amount of influenza sequence data and rapidly making it available to the entire scientific community."