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J Virol. 2003 Jun;77(12):6988-94.

Characterization of H9 subtype influenza viruses from the ducks of southern China: a candidate for the next influenza pandemic in humans?

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Joint Influenza Research Centre (SUMC & HKU), Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Shantou University Medical College, Shantou, Guangdong 515031, P. R. China.


A current view of the emergence of pandemic influenza viruses envisages a gene flow from the aquatic avian reservoir to humans via reassortment in pigs, the hypothetical "mixing vessel." Understanding arising from recent H5N1 influenza outbreaks in Hong Kong since 1997 and the isolation of avian H9N2 virus from humans raises alternative options for the emergence of a new pandemic virus. Here we report that H9N2 influenza viruses established in terrestrial poultry in southern China are transmitted back to domestic ducks, in which the viruses generate multiple reassortants. These novel H9N2 viruses are double or even triple reassortants that have amino acid signatures in their hemagglutinin, indicating their potential to directly infect humans. Some of them contain gene segments that are closely related to those of A/Hong Kong/156/97 (H5N1/97, H5N1) or A/Quail/Hong Kong/G1/97 (G1-like, H9N2). More importantly, some of their internal genes are closely related to those of novel H5N1 viruses isolated during the outbreak in Hong Kong in 2001. This study reveals a two-way transmission of influenza virus between terrestrial and aquatic birds that facilitates the generation of novel reassortant H9N2 influenza viruses. Such reassortants may directly or indirectly play a role in the emergence of the next pandemic virus.

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