Press Release

2,000 influenza virus genomes now completed and publicly accessible

Information critical to developing treatments and vaccines

February 21, 2007

The Influenza Genome Sequencing Project, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced today that it has achieved a major milestone. The entire genetic blueprints of more than 2,000 human and avian influenza viruses taken from samples around the world have been completed and the sequence data made available in a public database.

"This information will help scientists understand how influenza viruses evolve and spread," says NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., "and it will aid in the development of new flu vaccines, therapies and diagnostics."

"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," says NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D.

The Influenza Genome Sequencing Project, initiated in 2004, has been carried out at the NIAID-funded Microbial Sequencing Center managed by The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) of Rockville, Maryland. The project is currently directed by David Spiro, Ph.D., and Claire Fraser, Ph.D., at TIGR and Elodie Ghedin, Ph.D., at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Recently, growing sequencing capacity has enabled the production rate to increase to more than 200 viral genomes per month. Eclipsing today's milestone of 2,000 genomes, the microbial sequencing center will continue to rapidly sequence more influenza strains and isolates and will make all the sequence data freely available to the scientific community and the public through GenBank, an Internet-accessible database of genetic sequences maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at NIH's National Library of Medicine, another major contributor to the project.

Seasonal influenza is a major public health concern in the United States, accounting for approximately 36,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations each year. Globally, influenza results in an estimated 250,000 to half a million deaths annually. Seasonal flu shots are updated every year to target the latest strains in circulation. Developing such vaccines is challenging, however, because the influenza virus is prone to high mutation rates when it replicates, and these mutations can alter the virus enough that vaccines against one strain may not protect against another strain.

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 was the pandemic of 1918, which caused an estimated 40 to 50 million deaths worldwide.

"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, Ph.D., who oversees the NIAID 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. Subsequently, there has been a marked increase in the number of scientists worldwide depositing influenza genome sequence data into the public domain including scientists at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

Along with NIAID, TIGR and NCBI, other collaborators on the project include the Wadsworth Center of the New York State Department of Health in Albany, NY; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta; St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, TN; the World Organization for Animal Health / Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (OIE/FAO) Reference Laboratory for Newcastle Disease and Avian Influenza in Padova, Italy; The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH; Children's Hospital Boston; Baylor College of Medicine in Houston; and Canterbury Health Laboratories in Christchurch, New Zealand.

More information about the Influenza Genome Sequencing Project and access to the influenza virus sequence data is available at

To help analyze and interpret the large quantity of sequence data generated by the Project, NIAID has funded the BioHealthBase Bioinformatics Resource Center, which is being developed by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and developers at Northrop Grumman Information Technology's Life Sciences division in Rockville, Maryland. This Center provides the scientific community with bioinformatics and software tools and a robust point-of-entry for accessing influenza genomic and related data in a user-friendly format. BioHealthBase has recently established a collaboration with the Influenza Sequence Database at Los Alamos National Laboratory to provide influenza researchers with computational data management and analysis resources to assist in interpreting the genetic data. Data from the Influenza Genome Sequencing Project, as well as all other publicly available influenza sequence data, are also available through NCBI's Influenza Virus Resource, which includes a host of analysis tools, such as sequence alignment and building "trees" that show evolutionary relationships.

More information on these databases and other influenza data analysis tools can be accessed at

Visit PandemicFlu.gov (http://www.pandemicflu.gov) for one-stop access to U.S. Government information on avian and pandemic flu.

NIAID is a component of the National Institutes of Health. NIAID supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, influenza, tuberculosis, malaria and illness from potential agents of bioterrorism. NIAID also supports research on basic immunology, transplantation and immune-related disorders, including autoimmune diseases, asthma and allergies.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.

News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov.

Jason Socrates Bardi