Six variants that form plaques in chick embryo cells in the absence of trypsin have been isolated from the apathogenic avian influenza virus A/chick/Pennsylvania/1/83 (H5N2). Unlike the wild-type, the plaque variants contain a hemagglutinin that is cleaved in chick embryo cells and MDCK cells. The variants differ also from the wild-type in their pathogenicity for chickens. Nucleotide sequence and oligosaccharide analysis of the hemagglutinin have revealed that, unlike natural isolates with increased pathogenicity (Y. Kawaoka et al., 1984, Virology 139, 303-316; Y. Kawaoka and R. G. Webster, 1985, Virology 146, 130-137), the variants obtained in vitro have retained an oligosaccharide at asparagine 11 that is believed to interfere with the cleavage site of the wild-type. However, all variants showed mutations in the hemagglutinin resulting in an increased number of basic groups at the cleavage site. These observations demonstrate that masking of the cleavage site by an oligosaccharide is overcome by an enhancement of the basic charge at the cleavage site.