A new MIT study published on March 11th in the journal, Cell Host & Microbe suggests that the swine flu H1N1 strain currently in circulation in India, has acquired mutations and has become more virulent than the previously circulating strains of H1N1 influenza. Swine flu in India has already claimed 1,674 lives while the total number of infected persons has risen to 29,103, as on March 13th, said the Health Ministry.
Their findings contradict what Indian health officials have been maintainting till now- that the current strain is no different from the version of H1N1 that emerged in 2009 and has been circulating ever since. However, India has rejected these findings and have claimed that the findings were “incorrect”.
The researchers found new mutations in the hemagglutinin protein of the recent Indian strains, that are known to make the virus more virulent. However, the genetic sequence of the flu-virus protein hemagglutinin from only two influenza strains from India has been deposited into publicly available influenza databases, making it difficult to determine exactly which strain is causing the new outbreak, and how it differs from previous strains.
“We’re really caught between a rock and a hard place, with little information and a lot of misinformation,” says Ram Sasisekharan, the Alfred H. Caspary Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT and the paper’s senior author. “When you do real-time surveillance, get organized, and deposit these sequences, then you can come up with a better strategy to respond to the virus.”
The researchers at MIT have stressed the need for better surveillance to track the outbreak and to help scientists to determine how to respond to this influenza variant. Learning more about the new strain, could provide crucial information to public health officials who can then determine which drugs might be effective and can design effective vaccines for the next flu season.
“The goal is to get a clearer picture of the strains that are circulating and therefore anticipate the right kind of a vaccine strategy for 2016,” Sasisekharan says.