Mark Roberts, professor and chair in GSPH’s Department of Health Policy & Management, is coauthor of new findings about the composition and timing of flu shot design. The research has been published in the September-October issue of Operations Research by Swanson School of Engineering faculty members Oleg Prokopyev and Andrew Schaefer and coauthor Osman Ozaltin of the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
The flu’s high rate of transmission requires frequent changes to the composition of the flu shot. Different strains can cocirculate in one season, which adds to the challenge of figuring out the mix.
The Pitt researchers used powerful optimization methods to examine whether they could improve the yearly decisions made regarding what strains of influenza should be included in the current year’s vaccine. The strains of flu that will be most likely to appear in the regular flu season are not known with certainty, but waiting longer to finalize the composition of the vaccine and observing what strains are occurring in other parts of the world improves the accuracy of the selection. However, the longer the FDA waits to make the decision, the more likely it is that there will be insufficient vaccine produced by the start of flu season. The model developed by the Pitt researchers balances these two important characteristics of the flu selection decision and integrates the composition and timing decisions of the flu shot design.
The model allows examination of the effect of many changes to the design and production of the vaccine, such as how many strains to include in the shot, when to make the final decision, how many times the FDA should meet to re-examine the current information concerning strains in other parts of the world, and the potential benefits from improved production methods.
With this model, several policy questions can be addressed. For example, incorporating more than three strains might increase the societal benefit substantially, particularly under more severe flu seasons. The strains in the flu shot are now chosen at least six months before the actual flu season, which leaves a lot of uncertainty about which strain will actually emerge. The new models provide insights into the creation of a better flu shot.
For the future, the results suggest a substantial potential benefit from improved manufacturing techniques. With more research in this area, a more appropriate flu shot could be produced annually, saving Americans millions of dollars and preventing substantial influenza complications.
This research illustrates the benefits of collaborative, multidisciplinary research. Group members have been applying methods developed in engineering and designed for industry to very real problems in health and disease, and they are finding that they can provide insights not previously observed using traditional clinical research methods.