Clade 22.214.171.124c H5N6 avian influenza A viruses (AIVs) may have originally adapted to infect chickens and have caused highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in poultry and human fatalities. Although A/Puerto Rico/8/1934 (H1N1) (PR8)-derived recombinant clade 126.96.36.199c H5N6 vaccine strains have been effective in embryonated chicken eggs-based vaccine production system, they need to be improved in terms of immunogenicity and potential mammalian pathogenicity. We replaced the PB2 gene alone or the PB2 (polymerase basic protein 2), NP (nucleoprotein), M (matrix protein) and NS (non-structural protein) genes together in the PR8 strain with corresponding genes from AIVs with low pathogenicity to remove mammalian pathogenicity and to match CD8+ T cell epitopes with contemporary HPAI viruses, respectively, without loss of viral fitness. Additionally, we tested the effect of the H103Y mutation of hemagglutinin (HA) on antigen productivity, mammalian pathogenicity and heat/acid stability. The replacement of PB2 genes and the H103Y mutation reduced the mammalian pathogenicity but increased the antigen productivity of the recombinant vaccine strains. The H103Y mutation increased heat stability but unexpectedly decreased acid stability, probably resulting in increased activation pH for HA. Interestingly, vaccination with inactivated recombinant virus with replaced NP, M and NS genes halted challenge virus shedding earlier than the recombinant vaccine without internal genes replacement. In conclusion, we successfully generated recombinant clade 188.8.131.52c H5N6 vaccine strains that were less pathogenic to mammals and more productive and heat stable than conventional PR8-derived recombinant strains by optimization of internal genes and the H103Y mutation of HA.
Keywords: T cell epitopes; antigen productivity; clade 184.108.40.206c H5N6 vaccine; heat/acid stability.