H7N9 Influenza Viruses Are Transmissible in Ferrets by Respiratory Droplet

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Science  26 Jul 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6144, pp. 410-414
DOI: 10.1126/science.1240532

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H7N9 Adaptation

Puzzling and alarming reports of an outbreak in early 2013 of human infections by a low-pathogenicity avian influenza virus has rocked the poultry industry in central eastern China and brought fears of initiating a human pandemic. Over 130 human cases have been reported with 37 deaths until closure of poultry markets accompanied a near-cessation of human case reports. From surveillance sampling of >10,000 isolates obtained during April 2013, Zhang et al. (p. 410, published online 18 July) took 37 isolates of avian origin H7N9 and compared them to human H7N9 isolates. The majority of H7N9 isolates came from live poultry markets, although some originated in pigeons. Sequence analysis indicated that the chicken isolates had retained the avian characteristics at sites on the influenza genes for PB2 and the surface hemagglutinin HA, where adaptive mutations have been observed before. Sequence analysis also showed a higher variability in the internal genes than in HA and neuraminidase NA. By using glycan arrays, it was shown that avian and human isolates bound to human, but also to some extent to avian, receptors. As expected, the virus replicated well in chickens without causing disease, whereas in mice only the human isolates were highly pathogenic. The human virus, but not the avian, transmitted between ferrets through the air.


A newly emerged H7N9 virus has caused 132 human infections with 37 deaths in China since 18 February 2013. Control measures in H7N9 virus–positive live poultry markets have reduced the number of infections; however, the character of the virus, including its pandemic potential, remains largely unknown. We systematically analyzed H7N9 viruses isolated from birds and humans. The viruses were genetically closely related and bound to human airway receptors; some also maintained the ability to bind to avian airway receptors. The viruses isolated from birds were nonpathogenic in chickens, ducks, and mice; however, the viruses isolated from humans caused up to 30% body weight loss in mice. Most importantly, one virus isolated from humans was highly transmissible in ferrets by respiratory droplet. Our findings indicate nothing to reduce the concern that these viruses can transmit between humans.

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