New JHU center to improve tracking of influenza viruses

The National Institutes of Health has awarded a contract to researchers at Johns Hopkins to launch a new center devoted to developing innovative ways to identify and track influenza viruses worldwide. One top goal is to rapidly identify new virus strains that may emerge as the next seasonal influenza or global pandemic that could threaten public health.

Under terms of the contract from NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Johns Hopkins will be one of only five institutions in the United States to be a part of the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. The institutions will pursue independent research projects and collaborate on others.

A high priority for the Johns Hopkins center is to develop better ways to rapidly identify which circulating influenza virus strains are robust enough to infect large numbers of people and cause serious, widespread illness, says Andrew Pekosz, an associate professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, who will co-direct the center with Richard Rothman, a professor and vice chair of research in the School of Medicine's Department of Emergency Medicine.

The Johns Hopkins CEIRS team plans to track human influenza virus strains in the United States and Taiwan as part of an effort to build a database of influenza cases in real time from hospitals and other health care facilities. The data will be stored in a central cloud-based computer network so that researchers across the CEIRS network can access the information for their own projects and share insights and findings.

The center staff also will analyze genetic characteristics of influenza viruses and use genome sequencing technologies on viruses collected for the database.

Pekosz notes that a storehouse of such information could aid in developing vaccines that better protect against circulating seasonal strains and give public health agencies and drug makers more lead time to prepare for a potential emerging pandemic.

Pekosz, who is also a member of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health and the Johns Hopkins Vaccine Initiative, says that development of flu vaccines has improved greatly in recent years, but he notes that developing seasonal flu vaccines can be a hit-or-miss proposition, with some vaccines not matching the strain that emerges as the dominant virus in a given year. Moreover, he says, development of a vaccine for strains that break out as pandemics also suffers because of the time required to make a vaccine after identifying the new virus strain.

For example, Pekosz says, by the time a vaccine was ready for the H1N1 virus that showed up in the U.S. in 2009, the number of cases had fallen off, and the serious public health threat the new virus posed had passed.
The Johns Hopkins CEIRS team hopes to improve the response to influenza epidemics and pandemics by isolating and characterizing new virus strains faster and earlier in the influenza season, thereby providing more time to generate vaccines and formulate public health intervention policies.

Other projects on which the Johns Hopkins center will focus include using human cell cultures to determine the likelihood of influenza viruses infecting humans, advanced computer modeling to assess how well different public health intervention strategies work to slow or mitigate an emerging pandemic, and global modeling to assess a country's or region's risk for an epidemic or pandemic; and
developing tactical response training programs for medical support and virus surveillance for a pandemic.