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Understanding how animal influenza A viruses (IAVs) acquire airborne transmissibility in humans and ferrets is needed to prepare for and respond to pandemics. Here, we investigated in ferrets the replication and transmission of swine H1N1 isolates P4 and G15, whose majority population had decreased polymerase activity and poor hemagglutinin (HA) stability, respectively. For both isolates, a minor variant was selected and transmitted in ferrets. Polymerase-enhancing variant PA-S321 airborne-transmitted and propagated in one ferret. HA-stabilizing variant HA1-S210 was selected in all G15-inoculated ferrets and was transmitted by contact and airborne routes. With an efficient polymerase and a stable HA, the purified minor variant G15-HA1-S210 had earlier and higher peak titers in inoculated ferrets and was recovered at a higher frequency after airborne transmission than P4 and G15. Overall, HA stabilization played a more prominent role than polymerase enhancement in the replication and transmission of these viruses in ferrets. The results suggest pandemic risk-assessment studies may benefit from deep sequencing to identify minor variants with human-adapted traits. IMPORTANCE Diverse IAVs circulate in animals, yet few acquire the viral traits needed to start a human pandemic. A stabilized HA and mammalian-adapted polymerase have been shown to promote the adaptation of IAVs to humans and ferrets (the gold-standard model for IAV replication, pathogenicity, and transmissibility). Here, we used swine IAV isolates of the gamma lineage as a model to investigate the importance of HA stability and polymerase activity in promoting replication and transmission in ferrets. These are emerging viruses that bind to both α-2,6- and α-2,3-linked receptors. Using isolates containing mixed populations, a stabilized HA was selected within days in inoculated ferrets. An enhanced polymerase was also selected and propagated after airborne transmission to a ferret. Thus, HA stabilization was a stricter requirement, yet both traits promoted transmissibility. Knowing the viral traits needed for pandemic potential, and the relative importance of each, will help identify emerging viruses of greatest concern.

Citation

Meng Hu, Jeremy C Jones, Balaji Banoth, Chet Raj Ojha, Jeri Carol Crumpton, Lisa Kercher, Robert G Webster, Richard J Webby, Charles J Russell. Swine H1N1 Influenza Virus Variants with Enhanced Polymerase Activity and HA Stability Promote Airborne Transmission in Ferrets. Journal of virology. 2022 Apr 13;96(7):e0010022

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PMID: 35254104

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