Washington, May 20 : Studying 13,000 flu samples from around the world, a team of researchers has come to the conclusion that Asia is the cradle of the flu virus.
University of Cambridge researcher Derek Smith, who was doing his PhD at the Santa Fe Institute when the project began, says that new virus varieties evolved in Asia, and then spread to Europe, Australia, North America and finally to South America through travellers.
He has revealed that data about the flu samples studied were based on the information that the World Health Organization Global Influenza Surveillance Network collected from 2002 to 2007, keeping track of when and where different strains of the virus popped up.
He says that the WHO experts had also analysed the shape differences between the proteins used by each virus to bind to human cells, along with the genetic makeup of each virus.
Smith and his colleagues used that data to create an "antigenic map" that visually showed the relationships between all the different viruses, and allowed the research team to determine the migration patterns of the virus around the world.
"This work is highly multidisciplinary, with epidemiologists, computer scientists, computational biologists, mathematicians, virologists, immunologists, geneticists, veterinarians, and MDs. It was made possible by collaborations with people from all of these disciplines," Smith said.
He believes that this work may help improve the efficacy of the present-day flu vaccines.
Smith says that the flu virus is constantly evolving, and thereby making it difficult for scientists to update the vaccine.
He says that scientists need to decide on a formulation a year in advance of when the flu will actually hit, to allow time for the vaccine to be manufactured and administered.
And for this, he adds, they have predict which of the strains of flu virus are going to be causing the most disease a year down the line.
"In order to try to predict how flu viruses might evolve, we have to understand how they're moving around the world and where they're evolving," says Smith.
The new findings have been published in the journal Science.