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Computer Prediction: Only Vaccine Can Stop Flu Pandemic -- but Strategies May Buy Time

Computer Prediction: Only Vaccine Can Stop Flu Pandemic -- but Strategies May Buy Time

No Nation a Pandemic FluFlu Island

Inevitably, there will be calls to close the U.S. to foreign travel. But by the time we realize there's a pandemic, it's not likely this will work.

"If there were a raging epidemic somewhere else in the world, it would be extremely unlikely we could stop it from entering the U.S.," Burke says. "If we have a new epidemic strain, it almost certainly will infect everybody. Not everybody will get ill and die, but nearly everybody will transmit it. Trying to keep a disease like that outside the U.S., to keep it from entering, is extremely difficult and highly improbable."

What about closing off the first U.S. cities to report infections?

"If there were to be only one city with a flu outbreak, you might, in theory, wall it off," Burke says. "But remember, flu is likely to be implanted widely across the U.S. before it is recognized as a major pandemic. If we have continuing introductions, which is likely, the notion of walling off a particular region is, in our assessment, not a likely to be an effective strategy."

Which Flu Bug, and When the Pandemic?

Burke often gets asked what his computer models predict about the future.

"I've been asked many times, can we in any computational way predict the likelihood of an epidemic this year or any time," he says. "I came to the conclusion I cannot give a number on that. But flu pandemics can occur any time. I should not be surprised if one were to appear in the next year or two or three. The appearance of a highly pathogenic virus in birds certainly raises that risk."

Burke and colleagues recently looked at whether pandemic flu could be nipped in the bud. The answer is maybe.

"If you were able to recognize a new flu virus before there were 20 to 30 cases, it would be possible -- with intense effort -- to stop it before it spreads," he says. "That is an important second line of defense. The first line of defense is minimizing human-bird contact. What would scenarios look like after that? My own assessment is that once a pandemic begins, in the absence of an effective vaccine, most people in the world will get infected with the new strain. That is what happened in 1918."

Both Burke and Wu hold out hope that when these computer models become more sophisticated, they will help guide decision makers when a flu pandemic eventually occurs. Wu is developing biological models that predict the best way to fight a pandemic flu virus -- or a bioterror weapon -- when it enters a human body.

"These mathematical and computer models are helpful to study different scenarios before they happen," Wu says. "When we have real-life data, we'll put it in the computer, and this will help governments quickly make decisions."

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