Avian H7 influenza viruses are recognized as potential pandemic viruses, as personnel often become infected during poultry outbreaks. H7 infections in humans typically cause mild conjunctivitis; however, the H7N9 outbreak in the spring of 2013 has resulted in severe respiratory disease. To date, no H7 viruses have acquired the ability for sustained transmission among humans. Airborne transmission is considered a requirement for the emergence of pandemic influenza, and advanced knowledge of the molecular changes or signature required for transmission would allow early identification of pandemic vaccine seed stocks, screening and stockpiling of antiviral compounds, and eradication efforts focused on flocks harboring threatening viruses. Thus, we sought to determine if a highly pathogenic influenza A H7N1 (A/H7N1) virus with no history of human infection could become capable of airborne transmission among ferrets. We show that after 10 serial passages, A/H7N1 developed the ability to be transmitted to cohoused and airborne contact ferrets. Four amino acid mutations (PB2 T81I, NP V284M, and M1 R95K and Q211K) in the internal genes and a minimal amino acid mutation (K/R313R) in the stalk region of the hemagglutinin protein were associated with airborne transmission. Furthermore, transmission was not associated with loss of virulence. These findings highlight the importance of the internal genes in host adaptation and suggest that natural isolates carrying these mutations be further evaluated. Our results demonstrate that a highly pathogenic avian H7 virus can become capable of airborne transmission in a mammalian host, and they support ongoing surveillance and pandemic H7 vaccine development.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Insect Science