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Science. 2007 Feb 2;315(5812):655-9.

A two-amino acid change in the hemagglutinin of the 1918 influenza virus abolishes transmission.

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Influenza Branch, Mailstop G-16, Division of Viral and Ricksettial Diseases, National Center for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30333, USA.


The 1918 influenza pandemic was a catastrophic series of virus outbreaks that spread across the globe. Here, we show that only a modest change in the 1918 influenza hemagglutinin receptor binding site alters the transmissibility of this pandemic virus. Two amino acid mutations that cause a switch in receptor binding preference from the human alpha-2,6 to the avian alpha-2,3 sialic acid resulted in a virus incapable of respiratory droplet transmission between ferrets but that maintained its lethality and replication efficiency in the upper respiratory tract. Furthermore, poor transmission of a 1918 virus with dual alpha-2,6 and alpha-2,3 specificity suggests that a predominant human alpha-2,6 sialic acid binding preference is essential for optimal transmission of this pandemic virus. These findings confirm an essential role of hemagglutinin receptor specificity for the transmission of influenza viruses among mammals.

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