The genotype of the host is one of several factors involved in the pathogenesis of an infectious disease and may be a key parameter in the epidemiology of highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus infection in humans. Gene polymorphisms may affect the viral replication rate or alter the host's immune response to the virus. In humans, it is unclear which aspect dictates the severity of H5N1 virus disease. To identify the mechanism underlying differential responses to H5N1 virus infection in a genetically diverse population, we assessed the host responses and lung viral loads in 21 inbred mouse strains upon intranasal inoculation with A/Hong Kong/213/03 (H5N1). Resistant mouse strains survived large inocula while susceptible strains succumbed to infection with 1,000- to 10,000-fold-lower doses. Quantitative analysis of the viral load after inoculation with an intermediate dose found significant associations with lethality as early as 2 days postinoculation, earlier than any other disease indicator. The increased viral titers in the highly susceptible strains mediated a hyperinflamed environment, indicated by the distinct expression profiles and increased production of inflammatory mediators on day 3. Supporting the hypothesis that viral load rather than an inappropriate response to the virus was the key severity-determining factor, we performed quantitative real-time PCR measuring the cytokine/viral RNA ratio. No significant differences between susceptible and resistant mouse strains were detected, confirming that it is the host genetic component controlling viral load, and therefore replication dynamics, that is primarily responsible for a host's susceptibility to a given H5N1 virus.
Importance: Highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus has circulated in Southeast Asia since 2003 but has been confirmed in relatively few individuals. It has been postulated that host genetic polymorphisms increase the susceptibility to infection and severe disease. The mechanisms and host proteins affected during severe disease are unknown. Inbred mouse strains vary considerably in their ability to resist H5N1 virus and were used to identify the primary mechanism determining disease severity. After inoculation with H5N1, resistant mouse strains had reduced amounts of virus in their lungs, which subsequently resulted in lower production of proinflammatory mediators and less pathology. We therefore conclude that the host genetic component controlling disease severity is primarily influencing viral replication. This is an important concept, as it emphasizes the need to limit virus replication through antiviral therapies and it shows that the hyperinflammatory environment is simply a reflection of more viral genetic material inducing a response.