Predicting Egg Passage Adaptations to Design Better Vaccines for the H3N2 Influenza Virus

Seasonal H3N2 influenza evolves rapidly, leading to an extremely poor vaccine efficacy. Substitutions employed during vaccine production using embryonated eggs (i.e., egg passage adaptation) contribute to the poor vaccine efficacy (VE), but the evolutionary mechanism remains elusive. Using an unprecedented number of hemagglutinin sequences (n = 89,853), we found that the fitness landscape of passage adaptation is dominated by pervasive epistasis between two leading residues (186 and 194) and multiple other positions. Convergent evolutionary paths driven by strong epistasis explain most of the variation in VE, which has resulted in extremely poor vaccines for the past decade. Leveraging the unique fitness landscape, we developed a novel machine learning model that can predict egg passage substitutions for any candidate vaccine strain before the passage experiment, providing a unique opportunity for the selection of optimal vaccine viruses. Our study presents one of the most comprehensive characterizations of the fitness landscape of a virus and demonstrates that evolutionary trajectories can be harnessed for improved influenza vaccines.