Continued Evolution of H5Nx Avian Influenza Viruses in Bangladeshi Live Poultry Markets: Pathogenic Potential in Poultry and Mammalian Models

The genesis of novel influenza viruses through reassortment poses a continuing risk to public health. This is of particular concern in Bangladesh, where highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses of the A(H5N1) subtype are endemic and cocirculate with other influenza viruses. Active surveillance of avian influenza viruses in Bangladeshi live poultry markets detected three A(H5) genotypes, designated H5N1-R1, H5N1-R2, and H5N2-R3, that arose from reassortment of A(H5N1) clade viruses. The H5N1-R1 and H5N1-R2 viruses contained HA, NA, and M genes from the A(H5N1) clade viruses and PB2, PB1, PA, NP, and NS genes from other Eurasian influenza viruses. H5N2-R3 viruses contained the HA gene from circulating A(H5N1) clade viruses, NA and M genes from concurrently circulating A(H9N2) influenza viruses, and PB2, PB1, PA, NP, and NS genes from other Eurasian influenza viruses. Representative viruses of all three genotypes and a parental clade strain (H5N1-R0) infected and replicated in mice without prior adaptation; the H5N2-R3 virus replicated to highest titers in the lung. All viruses efficiently infected and killed chickens. All viruses replicated in inoculated ferrets, but no airborne transmission was detected, and only H5N2-R3 showed limited direct-contact transmission. Our findings demonstrate that although the A(H5N1) viruses circulating in Bangladesh have the capacity to infect and replicate in mammals, they show very limited capacity for transmission. However, reassortment does generate viruses of distinct phenotypes.IMPORTANCE Highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N1) viruses have circulated continuously in Bangladesh since 2007, and active surveillance has detected viral evolution driven by mutation and reassortment. Recently, three genetically distinct A(H5N1) reassortant viruses were detected in live poultry markets in Bangladesh. Currently, we cannot assign pandemic risk by only sequencing viruses; it must be conducted empirically. We found that the H5Nx highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses exhibited high virulence in mice and chickens, and one virus had limited capacity to transmit between ferrets, a property considered to be consistent with a higher zoonotic risk.