The pig as a mixing vessel for influenza viruses: Human and veterinary implications

J Mol Genet Med. 2008 Nov 27;3(1):158-66.


Influenza A viruses are highly infectious respiratory pathogens that can infect many species. Birds are the reservoir for all known influenza A subtypes; and novel influenza viruses can emerge from birds and infect mammalian species including humans. Because swine are susceptible to infection with both avian and human influenza viruses, novel reassortant influenza viruses can be generated in this mammalian species by reassortment of influenza viral segments leading to the "mixing vessel" theory. There is no direct evidence that the reassortment events culminating in the 1918, 1957 or 1968 pandemic influenza viruses originated from pigs. Genetic reassortment among avian, human and/or swine influenza virus gene segments has occurred in pigs and some novel reassortant swine viruses have been transmitted to humans. Notably, novel reassortant H2N3 influenza viruses isolated from the US pigs, most likely infected with avian influenza viruses through surface water collected in ponds for cleaning barns and watering animals, had a similar genetic make-up to early isolates (1957) of the H2N2 human pandemic. These novel H2N3 swine viruses were able to cause disease in swine and mice and were infectious and highly transmissible in swine and ferrets without prior adaptation. The preceding example shows that pigs could transmit novel viruses from an avian reservoir to other mammalian species. Importantly, H2 viruses pose a substantial risk to humans because they have been absent from mammalian species since 1968 and people born after 1968 have little preexisting immunity to the H2 subtype. It is difficult to predict which virus will cause the next human pandemic and when that pandemic might begin. Importantly, the establishment and spread of a reassorted mammalian-adapted virus from pigs to humans could happen anywhere in the world. Therefore, both human and veterinary research needs to give more attention to potential cross-species transmission capacity of influenza A viruses.

Keywords: Swine; genetic reassortment; human pandemic; influenza A virus; mixing vessel.