The high economic impact and zoonotic potential of avian influenza call for detailed investigations of dispersal dynamics of epidemics. We integrated phylogeographic and epidemiologic analyses to investigate the dynamics of a low pathogenicity avian influenza (H3N1) epidemic that occurred in Belgium during 2019. Virus genomes from 104 clinical samples originating from 85% of affected farms were sequenced. A spatially explicit phylogeographic analysis confirmed a dominating northeast to southwest dispersal direction and a long-distance dispersal event linked to direct live animal transportation between farms. Spatiotemporal clustering, transport, and social contacts strongly correlated with the phylogeographic pattern of the epidemic. We detected only a limited association between wind direction and direction of viral lineage dispersal. Our results highlight the multifactorial nature of avian influenza epidemics and illustrate the use of genomic analyses of virus dispersal to complement epidemiologic and environmental data, improve knowledge of avian influenza epidemiologic dynamics, and enhance control strategies.
Keywords: Belgium; avian influenza; influenza; molecular epidemiology; respiratory infections; viruses; whole-genome sequencing.