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J Virol. 2004 May;78(9):4892-901.

Reemerging H5N1 influenza viruses in Hong Kong in 2002 are highly pathogenic to ducks.

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  • 1Division of Virology, Department of Infectious Diseases, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee 38105-2794, USA.


Waterfowl are the natural reservoir of all influenza A viruses, which are usually nonpathogenic in wild aquatic birds. However, in late 2002, outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus caused deaths among wild migratory birds and resident waterfowl, including ducks, in two Hong Kong parks. In February 2003, an avian H5N1 virus closely related to one of these viruses was isolated from two humans with acute respiratory distress, one of whom died. Antigenic analysis of the new avian isolates showed a reactivity pattern different from that of H5N1 viruses isolated in 1997 and 2001. This finding suggests that significant antigenic variation has recently occurred among H5N1 viruses. We inoculated mallards with antigenically different H5N1 influenza viruses isolated between 1997 and 2003. The new 2002 avian isolates caused systemic infection in the ducks, with high virus titers and pathology in multiple organs, particularly the brain. Ducks developed acute disease, including severe neurological dysfunction and death. Virus was also isolated at high titers from the birds' drinking water and from contact birds, demonstrating efficient transmission. In contrast, H5N1 isolates from 1997 and 2001 were not consistently transmitted efficiently among ducks and did not cause significant disease. Despite a high level of genomic homology, the human isolate showed striking biological differences from its avian homologue in a duck model. This is the first reported case of lethal influenza virus infection in wild aquatic birds since 1961.

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