H5N1 Hybrid Viruses Bearing 2009/H1N1 Virus Genes Transmit in Guinea Pigs by Respiratory Droplet

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Science  21 Jun 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6139, pp. 1459-1463
DOI: 10.1126/science.1229455

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Influencing Influenza

Currently, there is anxiety that the avian H5N1 influenza virus will reassort with the highly transmissible and epidemic H1N1 subtype to trigger a virulent human pandemic. Y. Zhang et al. (p. 1459, published online 2 May) used reverse genetics to make all possible reassortants between a virulent bird H5N1 with genes from a human pandemic H1N1. Virulence was tested in mice and transmissibility was tested between guinea pigs, which have both avian- and human-like airway influenza virus receptors. To assess what is happening to the receptor-ligand interactions as a result of these mutations, W. Zhang et al. (p. 1463, published online 2 May) probed the structure of both wild-type and mutant hemagglutinin of H5 in complex with analogs of the avian and human receptor types. Certain mutations in the receptor-binding site changed binding affinity.


In the past, avian influenza viruses have crossed species barriers to trigger human pandemics by reassorting with mammal-infective viruses in intermediate livestock hosts. H5N1 viruses are able to infect pigs, and some of them have affinity for the mammalian type α-2,6-linked sialic acid airway receptor. Using reverse genetics, we systematically created 127 reassortant viruses between a duck isolate of H5N1, specifically retaining its hemagglutinin (HA) gene throughout, and a highly transmissible, human-infective H1N1 virus. We tested the virulence of the reassortants in mice as a correlate for virulence in humans and tested transmissibility in guinea pigs, which have both avian and mammalian types of airway receptor. Transmission studies showed that the H1N1 virus genes encoding acidic polymerase and nonstructural protein made the H5N1 virus transmissible by respiratory droplet between guinea pigs without killing them. Further experiments implicated other H1N1 genes in the enhancement of mammal-to-mammal transmission, including those that encode nucleoprotein, neuraminidase, and matrix, as well as mutations in H5 HA that improve affinity for humanlike airway receptors. Hence, avian H5N1 subtype viruses do have the potential to acquire mammalian transmissibility by reassortment in current agricultural scenarios.

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