Interference of the influenza A virus non-structural protein NS1 with type I interferon (IFN) signalling has been characterized extensively in vitro. To assess the contribution of NS1 to the virulence of a specific strain, we generated recombinant USSR/90/77 viruses bearing the NS1 proteins of the attenuated strain PR/8/34 or the highly pathogenic strain 1918 'Spanish flu', all belonging to the H1N1 subtype. In vitro, the extent of interference with type I IFN production exerted by the different NS1 proteins correlated with the reported virulence of the respective strain. Infection of ferrets with the recombinant viruses revealed that the presence of the 1918 NS1 resulted in a slightly more severe disease with generally higher clinical scores and increased lung pathology. Analysis of mRNA from nasal wash cells revealed that viruses carrying the 1918 and, to a lesser extent, USSR/90/77 NS1 proteins caused a delay in upregulation of type I IFNs compared with the NS1 PR/8/34-expressing virus, demonstrating the importance of NS1 for early host-response control and virulence.