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J Virol. 2013 May;87(9):5239-54. doi: 10.1128/JVI.02753-12. Epub 2013 Feb 28.

1918 Influenza virus hemagglutinin (HA) and the viral RNA polymerase complex enhance viral pathogenicity, but only HA induces aberrant host responses in mice.

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Department of Pathobiological Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.


The 1918 pandemic influenza virus was the most devastating infectious agent in human history, causing fatal pneumonia and an estimated 20 to 50 million deaths worldwide. Previous studies indicated a prominent role of the hemagglutinin (HA) gene in efficient replication and high virulence of the 1918 virus in mice. It is, however, still unclear whether the high replication ability or the 1918 influenza virus HA gene is required for 1918 virus to exhibit high virulence in mice. Here, we examined the biological properties of reassortant viruses between the 1918 virus and a contemporary human H1N1 virus (A/Kawasaki/173/2001 [K173]) in a mouse model. In addition to the 1918 influenza virus HA, we demonstrated the role of the viral RNA replication complex in efficient replication of viruses in mouse lungs, whereas only the HA gene is responsible for lethality in mice. Global gene expression profiling of infected mouse lungs revealed that the 1918 influenza virus HA was sufficient to induce transcriptional changes similar to those induced by the 1918 virus, despite difference in lymphocyte gene expression. Increased expression of genes associated with the acute-phase response and the protein ubiquitination pathway were enriched during infections with the 1918 and 1918HA/K173 viruses, whereas reassortant viruses bearing the 1918 viral RNA polymerase complex induced transcriptional changes similar to those seen with the K173 virus. Taken together, these data suggest that HA and the viral RNA polymerase complex are critical determinants of Spanish influenza pathogenesis, but only HA, and not the viral RNA polymerase complex and NP, is responsible for extreme host responses observed in mice infected with the 1918 influenza virus.

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