The reported transmission of avian H9N2 influenza viruses to humans and the isolation of these viruses from Hong Kong poultry markets lend urgency to studies of their ecology and pathogenicity. We found that H9N2 viruses from North America differ from those of Asia. The North American viruses, which infect primarily domestic turkeys, replicated poorly in inoculated chickens. Phylogenetic analysis of the hemagglutinin and nucleoprotein genes indicated that the Asian H9N2 influenza viruses could be divided into three sublineages. Initial biological characterization of at least one virus from each lineage was done in animals. Early isolates of one lineage (A/Chicken/Beijing/1/94, H9N2) caused as high as 80% mortality rates in inoculated chickens, whereas all other strains were nonpathogenic. Sequence analysis showed that some isolates, including the pathogenic isolate, had one additional basic amino acid (A-R/K-S-S-R-) at the hemagglutinin cleavage site. Later isolates of the same lineage (A/Chicken/Hong Kong/G9/97, H9N2) that contains the PB1 and PB2 genes similar to Hong Kong/97 H5N1 viruses replicated in chickens, ducks, mice, and pigs but were pathogenic only in mice. A/Quail/Hong Kong/G1/97 (H9N2), from a second lineage that possesses the replicative complex similar to Hong Kong/97 H5N1 virus, replicated in chickens and ducks without producing disease signs, was pathogenic in mice, and spread to the brain without adaptation. Examples of the third Asian H9N2 sublineage (A/Chicken/Korea/323/96, Duck/Hong Kong/Y439/97) replicated in chickens, ducks, and mice without producing disease signs. The available evidence supports the notion of differences in pathogenicity of H9N2 viruses in the different lineages and suggests that viruses possessing genome segments similar to 1997 H5N1-like viruses are potentially pathogenic in mammals.
Copyright 2000 Academic Press.