H9N2 avian influenza virus (AIV) has been isolated from various species of wild birds and domestic poultry worldwide. It has been reported since the late 1990s, that H9N2 AIV has infected humans as reported in some Asian and North African countries. This subtype has already been circulating and constituting a serious threat to the poultry industry in Tunisia back in 2009. To investigate zoonotic potential and pathogenicity of H9N2 AIV in chickens and mice in Tunisia, five strains have been isolated during the period from 2014 to 2018. Samples were withdrawn from several wild bird species and environment (Lagoon water) of Maamoura and Korba Lagoons as well as Kuriat Island. Phylogenetic analyzes demonstrated that the isolated H9N2 strains belonged to the G1-like sublineage and were close to AIV H9N2 poultry viruses from North Africa, West Africa and the Middle East. All strains carried in their hemagglutinin the residue 226 L, which is an important marker for avian-to-human viral transmission. The hemagglutinin cleavage site has several motifs: PSKSSR/G, PARSSR/G and HARSSR/G. The neuraminidase showed S372A and R403W substitutions that have been previously detected in H3N2 and H2N2 viruses that were reported in human pandemics. Many mutations associated with mammalian infections have been detected in internal proteins. Pathogenicity evaluation in chickens showed that GF/14 replicates effectively in the lungs, tracheas, spleens, kidneys and brains and that it was transmitted among contact chickens. However, GHG/18 replicates poorly in chickens and has not an efficient transmission in contact chickens. GF/14 and GHG/18 could not kill mice though they replicated in their respiratory tract and caused a significant body weight loss (p < 0.05). This study highlights the importance of H9N2 AIV monitoring in both migratory birds and the environment to prevent virus transmission to humans.
Keywords: Chickens; H9N2 avian influenza virus; Mice; Pathogenicity; Wild birds; Zoonotic potential.
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