Comparison of pathogenicity of subtype H9 avian influenza wild-type viruses from a wide geographic origin expressing mono-, di-, or tri-basic hemagglutinin cleavage sites
An intravenous pathogenicity index (IVPI) of > 1.2 in chickens or, in case of subtypes H5 and H7, expression of a polybasic hemagglutinin cleavage site (HACS), signals high pathogenicity (HP). Viruses of the H9N2-G1 lineage, which spread across Asia and Africa, are classified to be of low pathogenicity although, in the field, they became associated with severe clinical signs and epizootics in chickens. Here we report on a pre-eminent trait of recent H9N2-G1 isolates from Bangladesh and India, which express a tribasic HACS (motif PAKSKR-GLF; reminiscent of an HPAIV-like polybasic HACS) and compare their features to H9Nx viruses with di- and monobasic HACS from other phylogenetic and geographic origins. In an in vitro assay, the tribasic HACS of H9N2 was processed by furin-like proteases similar to bona fide H5 HPAIV while some dibasic sites showed increased cleavability but monobasic HACS none. Yet, all viruses remained trypsin-dependent in cell culture. In ovo, only tribasic H9N2 viruses were found to replicate in a grossly extended spectrum of embryonic organs. In contrast to all subtype H5/H7 HPAI viruses, tribasic H9N2 viruses did not replicate in endothelial cells either in the chorio-allantoic membrane or in other embryonic tissues. By IVPI, all H9Nx isolates proved to be of low pathogenicity. Pathogenicity assessment of tribasic H9N2-G1 viruses remains problematic. It cannot be excluded that the formation of a third basic amino acid in the HACS forms an intermediate step towards a gain in pathogenicity. Continued observation of the evolution of these viruses in the field is recommended.