Background: Reduced seasonal influenza vaccine effectiveness (VE) was observed in individuals who received repeated annual vaccinations. Preexisting influenza antibody levels were also found inversely correlated with postvaccination titers. These reports suggest that preexisting immunity may affect contemporary seasonal vaccine performance.
Methods: Influenza A/H3 specific cross-reactivity of postvaccination sera from humans with or without preexisting immunity was assessed by hemagglutination inhibition (HAI) assay. Ferret antisera induced by repeated H3 exposures were also subjected to HAI, antibody affinity, and antibody avidity analyses.
Results: Human postvaccination sera derived from subjects with or without preexisting immunity showed different cross-reactivity against H3 variant viruses. Similarly, the breadth of cross-reactive ferret antibodies induced by repeated H3 exposures was also broadened. Antigenic differences between H3 viruses characterized by ferret antisera became smaller as the number of exposures increased. Although repeated H3 exposures induced "original antigenic sin" phenomena in HAI titers against later exposed viruses, resultant ferret antibodies showed gradually enhanced avidity for different H3/hemagglutinin. Increased antibody avidity was found to be inversely correlated with decreased antigenic differences among H3 viruses characterized.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that repeated H3 exposures imprinted not only antibody quantity but also antibody quality. The "naive" ferret model currently used for vaccine strain selection does not recapitulate the complexity of human preexisting immunity. Vaccine strains identified hereby may not provide coverage sufficient for those who were frequently infected and/or vaccinated, leading to the reduced VE observed.