Avian Influenza Virus H3 Hemagglutinin May Enable High Fitness of Novel Human Virus Reassortants
Reassortment of influenza A virus genes enables antigenic shift resulting in the emergence of pandemic viruses with novel hemagglutinins (HA) acquired from avian strains. Here, we investigated whether historic and contemporary avian strains with different replication capacity in human cells can donate their hemagglutinin to a pandemic human virus. We performed double-infections with two avian H3 strains as HA donors and a human acceptor strain, and determined gene compositions and replication of HA reassortants in mammalian cells. To enforce selection for the avian virus HA, we generated a strictly elastase-dependent HA cleavage site mutant from A/Hong Kong/1/68 (H3N2) (Hk68-Ela). This mutant was used for co-infections of human cells with A/Duck/Ukraine/1/63 (H3N8) (DkUkr63) or the more recent A/Mallard/Germany/Wv64-67/05 (H3N2) (MallGer05) in the absence of elastase but presence of trypsin. Among 21 plaques analyzed from each assay, we found 12 HA reassortants with DkUkr63 (4 genotypes) and 14 with MallGer05 (10 genotypes) that replicated in human cells comparable to the parental human virus. Although DkUkr63 replicated in mammalian cells at a reduced level compared to MallGer05 and Hk68, it transmitted its HA to the human virus, indicating that lower replication efficiency of an avian virus in a mammalian host may not constrain the emergence of viable HA reassortants. The finding that HA and HA/NA reassortants replicated efficiently like the human virus suggests that further HA adaptation remains a relevant barrier for emergence of novel HA reassortants.