Identification of Two novel reassortant avian influenza a (H5N6) viruses in whooper swans in Korea, 2016
© The Author(s). 2017
Received: 4 January 2017
Accepted: 16 March 2017
Published: 21 March 2017
On November 20, 2016 two novel strains of H5N6 highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAIVs) were isolated from three whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus) at Gangjin Bay in South Jeolla province, South Korea. Identification of HPAIVs in wild birds is significant as there is a potential risk of transmission of these viruses to poultry and humans.
Phylogenetic analysis revealed that Gangjin H5N6 viruses classified into Asian H5 clade 220.127.116.11 lineage and were distinguishable from H5N8 and H5N1 HPAIVs previously isolated in Korea. With the exception of the polymerase acidic (PA) gene, the viruses were most closely related to A/duck/Guangdong/01.01SZSGXJK005-Y/2016 (H5N6) (98.90 ~ 99.74%). The PA genes of the two novel Gangjin H5N6 viruses were most closely related to AIV isolates previously characterized from Korea, A/hooded crane/Korea/1176/2016 (H1N1) (99.16%) and A/environment/Korea/W133/2006 (H7N7) (98.65%). The lack of more recent viruses to A/environment/Korea/W133/2006 (H7N7) indicates the need for analysis of recent wild bird AIVs isolated in Korea because they might provide further clues as to the origin of these novel reassortant H5N6 viruses.
Although research on the origins and epidemiology of these infections is ongoing, the most likely route of infection for the whooper swans was through direct or indirect contact with reassortant viruses shed by migratory wild birds in Korea. As H5N6 HPAIVs can potentially be transmitted to poultry and humans, continuous monitoring of AIVs among wild birds will help to mitigate this risk.
KeywordsH5N6 Highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses Whooper swans Korea
As a natural reservoir for avian influenza viruses (AIVs), wild birds do not typically exhibit clinical signs of infection . In most instances when AIVs of wild-bird origin are transmitted to poultry, infections are initially mild and represent a low pathogenic phenotype. Highly pathogenic AIVs (HPAIVs) arise following adaptation in domestic poultry, and some strains are known to cause significant illness or death if transmitted back to wild birds. Infection by HPAI H5N1 led to the deaths of thousands of wild birds at Lake Qinghai, western China in 2005 , and infection with HPAI H5N8 killed over a hundred wild birds of multiple species in the Republic of Korea in 2014/2015 .
On 16 November, 2016 the government of South Korea reported outbreaks of H5N6 HPAI in poultry farms in South Jeolla province . On 20 November, 2016 one juvenile whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) exhibiting neurological signs including torticollis and ataxia, along with the carcasses of two adults were found at Gangjin Bay in South Jeolla. Samples collected from all three birds were positive for H5 subtype AIV by RT-PCR . To isolate the viruses, oropharyngeal and cloacal swabs, as well as tissue samples (trachea, liver, spleen and kidney) were inoculated into specific pathogen-free chicken eggs. Three isolates were identified as H5N6 AIVs by subtyping RT-PCR  and the entire genomes were determined . No other AIV subtypes or Newcastle disease viruses were detected. The isolates from three whooper swans were designated as A/whooper swan/Korea/Gangjin 48/2016 (H5N6) (Gangjin 48, juvenile), A/whooper swan/Korea/Gangjin 49-1/2016 (H5N6) (Gangjin 49–1, adult) and A/whooper swan/Korea/Gangjin 49-2/2016(H5N6) (Gangjin 49–2, adult). The sequences of these isolates were deposited in GenBank with accession numbers < KY402046-KY402077 > .
The viruses contained conservative residues within the receptor-binding pocket of the hemagglutinin protein (HA, including Q226 and G228, H3 numbering), which is associated with a preference for “avian” type cell surface receptors containing alpha 2,3-sialic acid residues . The viruses did not contain amino acid substitutions conferring resistance to adamantane and neuraminidase (NA) inhibitors . The deduced amino acid sequence of the HA protease cleavage site contains a series of basic amino acid residues (LRERRRKR/GLF) characteristic of highly pathogenic AIVs. Experimental infection of 8-week old chickens by intravenous inoculation of the Gangjin 48 virus resulted in the deaths of all 8 birds within 25 h, conferring a intravenous pathogenicity index of 3.0. .
Whooper swans breed in northern Eurasia and winter in Europe and eastern Asia, including South Korea. Previous satellite data describing their southern migration to South Korea indicate the birds follow the Flyway along inner Mongolia, northeast China and the Korean peninsula during October and November . Indeed, on 27 November many migratory bird species including whooper swans (>1,700), mallards (Anas platyrhynchos, > 3,500) and spot billed ducks (Ana poecilorhyncha, > 1,500) were observed around Gangjin Bay.
It is possible that whooper swans introduced both H5N6 viruses into Korea. However, it is also possible that whooper swans which are highly susceptible to HPAI H5N1 infection , may have been exposed locally through direct or indirect contact with other H5N6-infected but asymptomatic migratory species, such as mallards or spot-billed ducks, or perhaps through exposure to infected poultry . Wild bird species differ in their response to HPAIV infection, and it is likely that unidentified asymptomatically-infected migratory birds could have introduced an ancestral virus, similar to Guangdong 2016, into Korea. Moreover, these or other species of wild birds could then play a role in generating novel reassortant viruses when co-infected with other AIVs. Indeed, our research group has isolated more than sixty AIVs from wild birds and waterfowl feces since October 2016 (unpublished data). Genetic analysis of these AIVs might provide clues as to the origin of these viruses; the characterization of which will be further detailed in a subsequent publication.
In conclusion, we have identified the two novel HPAIV H5N6 strains from three whooper swans in Korea. Phylogenetic and genetic analyses have shown that the two strains resulted from reassortment of the clade 18.104.22.168 H5N6 viruses that circulated in Guangdong, and they are distinguishable from HPAIVs that caused previous poultry and wild bird outbreaks in Korea. Increased understanding of clade 22.214.171.124 H5N6 virus transmission and pathogenesis in wild birds would serve to increase knowledge of the risk these viruses present to wildlife, domestic animals, and humans. Furthermore, as the H5N6 HPAIVs are potentially transmissible to poultry and humans, continuous monitoring of AIVs among wild birds is warranted.
Avian Influenza Viruses
Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Viruses
Polymerase Acidic protein
Polymerase Basic 1 protein
Polymerase Basic 2 protein
Reverse Transcriptase-Polymerase Chain Reaction
We thank the National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER) and the Ministry of Environment for their efforts in the control of HPAIVs in wild birds. We thank Dr. David Blehert for helpful comments on this manuscript. Mention of products does not indicate endorsement by the US Government.
Availability of data and materials
The dataset supporting the conclusions of this article is available in the Genbank, [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/genbank/].
JJ conducted virus identification, genome sequencing, phylogenetic analysis and drafted the manuscript. CW, IA, YK, KL, SDJ, KS and SL participated in virus isolation. JKO, SJW, YK, SJ participated in sample collection. JJ, HI, JS and WJ designed the wild bird surveillance, conducted data analysis and provided final approval of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Consent for publication
Ethics approval and consent to participate
All experiments including chicken infection were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC) of National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER), Inchoen, Korea (IACUC Number: NIER-16-4).
This work was supported by National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER), NIER-2016-01-01-033. The funder had no role in the study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.
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