First report of field cases of Y280-like LPAI H9N2 strains in South Korean poultry farms: Pathological findings and genetic characterization

H9N2 Low-pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) viruses have long been circulating in the world poultry industry, resulting in substantial economic losses. In addition to animal health consequences, viruses from specific lineages such as G1 and Y280 are also known to have the potential of causing a pandemic within the human population. In South Korea, after introducing inactivated H9N2 vaccines in 2007, there were no field outbreaks of H9N2 LPAI since 2009. However, in June 2020, a H9N2 virus was isolated from an outbreak in a Korean chicken farm. This strain was distinct from the predominant Korean/Y439 lineage and was believed to be part of the Y280-like lineage. Since the first case of this new H9N2 LPAI, nine more cases of field infections in poultry farms were documented through July and December of 2020. Phylogenetic analysis of the hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase genes of these case isolates revealed that all strains were grouped with exotic Y280-like strains that did not previously exist in South Korea and were emerging into a new cluster. Serological assays also confirmed the existence of antibodies to Y280-like viruses in field sera collected from infected birds, and that they had seroconverted. Further analysis of the receptor-binding region in the HA protein also revealed that these isolates harbored a human-like motif that could potentially affect mammals and humans, demonstrating a possible public health risk. This is the first report of field cases caused byY280-like H9N2 LPAI in the Korean poultry industry.Research highlights Field outbreaks caused by Y280-like H9N2 avian influenza viruses were confirmed.A human-like motif was found at the HA receptor binding region of all isolates.