Whole-Genome Sequence Approach and Phylogenomic Stratification Improve the Association Analysis of Mutations With Patient Data in Influenza Surveillance

Each year, seasonal influenza results in high mortality and morbidity. The current classification of circulating influenza viruses is mainly focused on the hemagglutinin gene. Whole-genome sequencing (WGS) enables tracking mutations across all influenza segments allowing a better understanding of the epidemiological effects of intra- and inter-seasonal evolutionary dynamics, and exploring potential associations between mutations across the viral genome and patient´s clinical data. In this study, mutations were identified in 253 Influenza A (H3N2) clinical isolates from the 2016-2017 influenza season in Belgium. As a proof of concept, available patient data were integrated with this genomic data, resulting in statistically significant associations that could be relevant to improve the vaccine and clinical management of infected patients. Several mutations were significantly associated with the sampling period. A new approach was proposed for exploring mutational effects in highly diverse Influenza A (H3N2) strains through considering the viral genetic background by using phylogenetic classification to stratify the samples. This resulted in several mutations that were significantly associated with patients suffering from renal insufficiency. This study demonstrates the usefulness of using WGS data for tracking mutations across the complete genome and linking these to patient data, and illustrates the importance of accounting for the viral genetic background in association studies. A limitation of this association study, especially when analyzing stratified groups, relates to the number of samples, especially in the context of national surveillance of small countries. Therefore, we investigated if international databases like GISAID may help to verify whether observed associations in the Belgium A (H3N2) samples, could be extrapolated to a global level. This work highlights the need to construct international databases with both information of viral genome sequences and patient data.