Background: During the recent H1N1 influenza pandemic, excess morbidity and mortality was seen in young but not older adults suggesting that prior infection with influenza strains may have protected older subjects. In contrast, a history of recent seasonal trivalent vaccine in younger adults was not associated with protection.
Methods and findings: To study hemagglutinin (HA) antibody responses in influenza immunization and infection, we have studied the day 7 plasma cell repertoires of subjects immunized with seasonal trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine (TIV) and compared them to the plasma cell repertoires of subjects experimentally infected (EI) with influenza H3N2 A/Wisconsin/67/2005. The majority of circulating plasma cells after TIV produced influenza-specific antibodies, while most plasma cells after EI produced antibodies that did not react with influenza HA. While anti-HA antibodies from TIV subjects were primarily reactive with single or few HA strains, anti-HA antibodies from EI subjects were isolated that reacted with multiple HA strains. Plasma cell-derived anti-HA antibodies from TIV subjects showed more evidence of clonal expansion compared with antibodies from EI subjects. From an H3N2-infected subject, we isolated a 4-member clonal lineage of broadly cross-reactive antibodies that bound to multiple HA subtypes and neutralized both H1N1 and H3N2 viruses. This broad reactivity was not detected in post-infection plasma suggesting this broadly reactive clonal lineage was not immunodominant in this subject.
Conclusion: The presence of broadly reactive subdominant antibody responses in some EI subjects suggests that improved vaccine designs that make broadly reactive antibody responses immunodominant could protect against novel influenza strains.