For almost 60 years, the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) has been the key player in monitoring the evolution and spread of influenza viruses and recommending the strains to be used in human influenza vaccines. The GISRS has also worked to continually monitor and assess the risk posed by potential pandemic viruses and to guide appropriate public health responses.
The expanded and enhanced role of the GISRS following the adoption of the International Health Regulations (2005), recognition of the continuing threat posed by avian H5N1 and the aftermath of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic provide an opportune time to critically review the process by which influenza vaccine viruses are selected. In addition to identifying potential areas for improvement, such a review will also help to promote greater appreciation by the wider influenza and policy-making community of the complexity of influenza vaccine virus selection.
The selection process is highly coordinated and involves continual year-round integration of virological data and epidemiological information by National Influenza Centres (NICs), thorough antigenic and genetic characterization of viruses by WHO Collaborating Centres (WHOCCs) as part of selecting suitable candidate vaccine viruses, and the preparation of suitable reassortants and corresponding reagents for vaccine standardization by WHO Essential Regulatory Laboratories (ERLs).
Ensuring the optimal effectiveness of vaccines has been assisted in recent years by advances in molecular diagnosis and the availability of more extensive genetic sequence data. However, there remain a number of challenging constraints including variations in the assays used, the possibility of complications resulting from non-antigenic changes, the limited availability of suitable vaccine viruses and the requirement for recommendations to be made up to a year in advance of the peak of influenza season because of production constraints.
Effective collaboration and coordination between human and animal influenza networks is increasingly recognized as an essential requirement for the improved integration of data on animal and human viruses, the identification of unusual influenza A viruses infecting human, the evaluation of pandemic risk and the selection of candidate viruses for pandemic vaccines.
Training workshops, assessments and donations have led to significant increases in trained laboratory personnel and equipment with resulting expansion in both geographical surveillance coverage and in the capacities of NICs and other laboratories. This has resulted in a significant increase in the volume of information reported to WHO on the spread, intensity and impact of influenza. In addition, initiatives such as the WHO Shipment Fund Project have facilitated the timely sharing of clinical specimens and virus isolates and contributed to a more comprehensive understanding of the global distribution and temporal circulation of different viruses. It will be important to sustain and build upon the gains made in these and other areas.
Although the haemagglutination inhibition (HAI) assay is likely to remain the assay of choice for the antigenic characterization of viruses in the foreseeable future, alternative assays - for example based upon advanced recombinant DNA and protein technologies - may be more adaptable to automation. Other technologies such as microtitre neuraminidase inhibition assays may also have significant implications for both vaccine virus selection and vaccine development.
Microneutralization assays provide an important adjunct to the HAI assay in virus antigenic characterization. Improvements in the use and potential automation of such assays should facilitate large-scale serological studies, while other advanced techniques such as epitope mapping should allow for a more accurate assessment of the quality of a protective immune response and aid the development of additional criteria for measuring immunity.
Standardized seroepidemiological surveys to assess the impact of influenza in a population could help to establish well-characterized banks of age-stratified representative sera as a national, regional and global resource, while providing direct evidence of the specific benefits of vaccination.
Advances in high-throughput genetic sequencing coupled with advanced bioinformatics tools, together with more X-ray crystallographic data, should accelerate understanding of the genetic and phenotypic changes that underlie virus evolution and more specifically help to predict the influence of amino acid changes on virus antigenicity.
Complex mathematical modelling techniques are increasingly being used to gain insights into the evolution and epidemiology of influenza viruses. However, their value in predicting the timing and nature of future antigenic and genetic changes is likely to be limited at present. The application of simpler non-mechanistic statistical algorithms, such as those already used as the basis of antigenic cartography, and phylogenetic modelling are more likely to be useful in facilitating vaccine virus selection and in aiding assessment of the pandemic potential of avian and other animal influenza viruses.
The adoption of alternative vaccine technologies - such as live-attenuated, quadrivalent or non-HA-based vaccines - has significant implications for vaccine virus selection, as well as for vaccine regulatory and manufacturing processes. Recent collaboration between the GISRS and vaccine manufacturers has resulted in the increased availability of egg isolates and high-growth reassortants for vaccine production, the development of qualified cell cultures and the investigation of alternative methods of vaccine potency testing. WHO will continue to support these and other efforts to increase the reliability and timeliness of the global influenza vaccine supply.
The WHO GISRS and its partners are continually working to identify improvements, harness new technologies and strengthen and sustain collaboration. WHO will continue in its central role of coordinating worldwide expertise to meet the increasing public health need for influenza vaccines and will support efforts to improve the vaccine virus selection process, including through the convening of periodic international consultations.
WHO Writing Group, Ampofo, W., Baylor, N., Cobey, S., Cox, N., Daves, S., Edwards, S., Ferguson, N., Grohmann, G., Hay, A., Katz, J., Kullabutr, K., Lambert, L., Levandowski, R., Mishra, A., Monto, A., Siqueira, M., Tashiro, M., Waddell, A., Wairagkar, N., Wood, J., Zambon, M., Zhang, W. 2012. Improving influenza vaccine virus selection: Report of a WHO informal consultation held at WHO headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland, 14-16 June 2010. Influenza and Other Respiratory Diseases 6(2):142-152. [html, pdf]