Genetic Determinants for Virulence and Transmission of the Panzootic Avian Influenza Virus H5N8 Clade in Pekin Ducks

Waterfowl is the natural reservoir for avian influenza viruses (AIV), where the infection is mostly asymptomatic. In 2016, the panzootic high pathogenicity (HP) AIV H5N8 of clade (designated H5N8-B) caused significant mortality in wild and domestic ducks, in stark contrast to the predecessor virus from 2014 (designated H5N8-A). Here, we studied the genetic determinants for virulence and transmission of H5N8 clade in Pekin ducks. While ducks inoculated with recombinant H5N8-A did not develop any clinical signs, H5N8-B-inoculated and cohoused ducks died after showing neurological signs. Swapping of the HA gene segments did not increase virulence of H5N8-A but abolished virulence and reduced systemic replication of H5N8-B. Only H5N8-A carrying H5N8-B HA, NP, and NS with or without NA exhibited high virulence in inoculated and contact ducks, similar to H5N8-B. Compared to H5N8-A, HA, NA, NS, and NP proteins of H5N8-B possess peculiar differences, which conferred increased receptor binding affinity, neuraminidase activity, efficiency to inhibit interferon-alpha induction, and replication in vitro, respectively. Taken together, this comprehensive study showed that HA is not the only virulence determinant of the panzootic H5N8-B in Pekin ducks, but NP, NS, and to a lesser extent NA were also necessary for the exhibition of high virulence in vivo. These proteins acted synergistically to increase receptor binding affinity, sialidase activity, interferon antagonism, and replication. This is the first ad-hoc study to investigate the mechanism underlying the high virulence of HPAIV in Pekin ducks.

IMPORTANCE Since 2014, several waves of avian influenza virus (AIV) H5N8 of clade occurred globally on unprecedented levels. Unlike viruses in the first wave in 2014–2015 (H5N8-A), viruses in 2015–2016 (H5N8-B) exhibited unusually high pathogenicity (HP) in wild and domestic ducks. Here, we found that the high virulence of H5N8-B in Pekin ducks could be attributed to multiple factors in combination, namely, hemagglutinin (HA), neuraminidase (NA), nucleoprotein (NP), and nonstructural protein 1 (NS1). Compared to H5N8-A, H5N8-B possesses distinct genetic and biological properties including increased HA receptor-binding affinity and neuraminidase activity. Likewise, H5N8-B NS1 and NP were more efficient to inhibit interferon induction and enhance replication in primary duck cells, respectively. These results indicate the polygenic trait of virulence of HPAIV in domestic ducks and the altered biological properties of the HPAIV H5N8 clade These findings may explain the unusual high mortality in Pekin ducks during the panzootic H5N8 outbreaks.



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