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J Virol. 2007 Jul;81(13):6890-8. Epub 2007 Apr 25.

Inefficient transmission of H5N1 influenza viruses in a ferret contact model.

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  • 1Department of Infectious Diseases, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, 332 N. Lauderdale, Memphis, TN 38105, USA.


The abilities to infect and transmit efficiently among humans are essential for a novel influenza A virus to cause a pandemic. To evaluate the pandemic potential of widely disseminated H5N1 influenza viruses, a ferret contact model using experimental groups comprised of one inoculated ferret and two contact ferrets was used to study the transmissibility of four human H5N1 viruses isolated from 2003 to 2006. The effects of viral pathogenicity and receptor binding specificity (affinity to synthetic sialosaccharides with alpha2,3 or alpha2,6 linkages) on transmissibility were assessed. A/Vietnam/1203/04 and A/Vietnam/JP36-2/05 viruses, which possess "avian-like" alpha2,3-linked sialic acid (SA) receptor specificity, caused neurological symptoms and death in ferrets inoculated with 10(3) 50% tissue culture infectious doses. A/Hong Kong/213/03 and A/Turkey/65-596/06 viruses, which show binding affinity for "human-like" alpha2,6-linked SA receptors in addition to their affinity for alpha2,3-linked SA receptors, caused mild clinical symptoms and were not lethal to the ferrets. No transmission of A/Vietnam/1203/04 or A/Turkey/65-596/06 virus was detected. One contact ferret developed neutralizing antibodies to A/Hong Kong/213/03 but did not exhibit any clinical signs or detectable virus shedding. In two groups, one of two naïve contact ferrets had detectable virus after 6 to 8 days when housed together with the A/Vietnam/JP36-2/05 virus-inoculated ferrets. Infected contact ferrets showed severe clinical signs, although little or no virus was detected in nasal washes. This limited virus shedding explained the absence of secondary transmission from the infected contact ferret to the other naïve ferret that were housed together. Our results suggest that despite their receptor binding affinity, circulating H5N1 viruses retain molecular determinants that restrict their spread among mammalian species.

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