LID scientists are collaborating with scientists from MedImmune under a CRADA to generate candidate vaccines against avian influenza viruses of each subtype, including H5N1 viruses that have caused human infections since 2003. The vaccines were generated using plasmid based reverse genetics and each contains the hemagglutinin and neuraminidase genes from an avian influenza virus and six internal gene segments from the AA ca virus. Highly pathogenic avian influenza is a disease of poultry that is caused by H5 or H7 avian influenza viruses and is associated with up to 100% mortality. HPAI viruses of the H5 and H7 subtypes typically possess multiple basic amino acids around the cleavage site (MBS) of their hemagglutinin (HA) protein, a recognized virulence motif in poultry. To determine the importance of the H5 HA MBS as a virulence factor in mammals, recombinant wild-type HPAI A/Vietnam/1203/2004 (H5N1) viruses that possessed (H5N1) or lacked (ΔH5N1) the H5 HA MBS were generated and evaluated for their virulence in BALB/c mice, ferrets, and African green monkeys (Chlorocebus aethiops). The presence of the H5 HA MBS was associated with lethality, significantly higher virus titers in the respiratory tract, virus dissemination to extrapulmonary organs, lymphopenia, significantly elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines and inflammation in the lungs of mice and ferrets. In African green monkeys, neither H5N1 nor ΔH5N1 virus was lethal and neither caused clinical symptoms. The H5 HA MBS was associated with mild enhancement of replication and delayed virus clearance. Thus, the contribution of H5 HA MBS to the virulence of the HPAI H5N1 virus varies among mammalian hosts and is most significant in mice and ferrets and less remarkable in nonhuman primates.

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