Insertion of Basic Amino Acids in the Hemagglutinin Cleavage Site of H4N2 Avian Influenza Virus (AIV) Reduced Virus Fitness in Chickens which is Restored by Reassortment with Highly Pathogenic H5N1 AIV : [Preprint]
Highly pathogenic (HP) avian influenza viruses (AIVs) are naturally restricted to H5 and H7 subtypes with a polybasic cleavage site (CS) in the hemagglutinin (HA) and any AIV with an intravenous pathogenicity index (IVPI) ≥1.2. Only few non-H5/H7 viruses fulfill the criteria of HPAIVs; nevertheless, it remains unknown why these viruses did not spread in domestic birds. In 2012, a unique H4N2 virus with a polybasic CS 322PEKRRTR/G329 was isolated from quails in California which, however, was avirulent in chickens. This is the only known non-H5/H7 virus with four basic amino acids in the HACS. Here, we investigated the virulence of this virus in chickens after expansion of the polybasic CS by substitution of T327R (322PEKRRRR/G329) or T327K (322PEKRRKR/G329) with or without reassortment with HPAIVs H5N1 and H7N7. The impact of single mutations or reassortment on virus fitness in vitro and in vivo was studied. Efficient cell culture replication of T327R/K carrying H4N2 viruses increased by trypsin, particularly in MDCK cells, and reassortment with HPAIV H5N1. Likewise, replication, virus excretion and bird-to-bird transmission of H4N2 was remarkably compromised by the CS mutations, but restored after reassortment with HPAIV H5N1, although not with HPAIV H7N7. Viruses carrying the H4-HA with or without R327 or K327 mutations and the other gene segments from HPAIV H5N1 exhibited high virulence and efficient transmission in chickens. Together, increasing the number of basic amino acids in the H4N2 HACS was detrimental for viral fitness particularly in vivo but compensated by reassortment with HPAIV H5N1. This may explain the absence of non-H5/H7 HPAIVs in poultry.