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This article is part of the supplement: Mathematical Modelling of Influenza

Open Access Open Badges Research

Emergence and dynamics of influenza super-strains

Brian J Coburn1*, Chris Cosner2 and Shigui Ruan2

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Biomedical Modeling, Semel Institute of Neuroscience & Human Behavior, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, 10940 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA 90024, USA

2 Department of Mathematics, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33124-4250, USA

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11(Suppl 1):S6  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-S1-S6

Published: 25 February 2011



Influenza super-strains can emerge through recombination of strains from birds, pigs, and humans. However, once a new recombinant strain emerges, it is not clear whether the strain is capable of sustaining an outbreak. In certain cases, such strains have caused major influenza pandemics.


Here we develop a multi-host (i.e., birds, pigs, and humans) and multi-strain model of influenza to analyze the outcome of emergent strains. In the model, pigs act as “mixing vessels” for avian and human strains and can produce super-strains from genetic recombination.


We find that epidemiological outcomes are predicted by three factors: (i) contact between pigs and humans, (ii) transmissibility of the super-strain in humans, and (iii) transmissibility from pigs to humans. Specifically, outbreaks will reoccur when the super-strain infections are less frequent between humans (e.g., R0=1.4) but frequent from pigs to humans, and a large-scale outbreak followed by successive dampening outbreaks will occur when super-strain infections are frequent between humans (e.g., R0=2.3). The average time between the initial outbreak and the first resurgence varies from 41 to 82 years. We determine the largest outbreak will occur when 2.3 <R0 < 3.8 and the highest cumulative infections occur when 0 <R0 < 3.0 and is dependent on the frequency of pig-to-human infections for lower R0 values (0 <R0 < 1.9).


Our results provide insights on the effect of species interactions on the dynamics of influenza super-strains. Counter intuitively, epidemics may occur in humans even if the transmissibility of a super-strain is low. Surprisingly, our modeling shows strains that have generated past epidemics (e.g., H1N1) could resurge decades after they have apparently disappeared.