Detection of H3N8 influenza A virus with multiple mammalian-adaptive mutations in a rescued Grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) pup

Virus Evol. 2020 Mar 18;6(1):veaa016. doi: 10.1093/ve/veaa016. eCollection 2020 Jan.


Avian influenza A viruses (IAVs) in different species of seals display a spectrum of pathogenicity, from sub-clinical infection to mass mortality events. Here we present an investigation of avian IAV infection in a 3- to 4-month-old Grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) pup, rescued from St Michael's Mount, Cornwall in 2017. The pup underwent medical treatment but died after two weeks; post-mortem examination and histology indicated sepsis as the cause of death. IAV NP antigen was detected by immunohistochemistry in the nasal mucosa, and sensitive real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction assays detected trace amounts of viral RNA within the lower respiratory tract, suggesting that the infection may have been cleared naturally. IAV prevalence among Grey seals may therefore be underestimated. Moreover, contact with humans during the rescue raised concerns about potential zoonotic risk. Nucleotide sequencing revealed the virus to be of subtype H3N8. Combining a GISAID database BLAST search and time-scaled phylogenetic analyses, we inferred that the seal virus originated from an unsampled, locally circulating (in Northern Europe) viruses, likely from wild Anseriformes. From examining the protein alignments, we found several residue changes in the seal virus that did not occur in the bird viruses, including D701N in the PB2 segment, a rare mutation, and a hallmark of mammalian adaptation of bird viruses. IAVs of H3N8 subtype have been noted for their particular ability to cross the species barrier and cause productive infections, including historical records suggesting that they may have caused the 1889 pandemic. Therefore, infections such as the one we report here may be of interest to pandemic surveillance and risk and help us better understand the determinants and drivers of mammalian adaptation in influenza.

Keywords: avian influenza; grey seal; influenza; mammalian adaptation; pinniped; viral reservoir.