As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, viruses can quickly evolve new ways of evading our immune systems, undermining our efforts to control outbreaks. But a new artificial intelligence (AI) tool developed by researchers at the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School could help predict new viral variants before they emerge. The findings have been published in the journal Nature.
The model, named EVEscape, works by predicting the likelihood that a viral mutation will enable it to escape immune responses, for instance by preventing antibodies from binding. EVEscape’s underlying framework combines a deep-learning model of evolutionary viral sequences with detailed biological and structural information about the virus. In combination, this enables EVEscape to make predictions about the variants most likely to occur as the virus evolves.
Crucially, the model can anticipate new viral variants before they emerge, solely using information available at the start of an outbreak. This approach could facilitate more effective preventative action, and the design of vaccines which target variants of concern before they become prevalent.