Genetic Characterization and Pathogenicity of H7N7 and H7N9 Avian Influenza Viruses Isolated from South Korea

H7 low pathogenic avian influenza viruses (LPAIVs) can mutate into highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses (HPAIVs). In addition to avian species, H7 avian influenza viruses (AIVs) also infect humans. In this study, two AIVs, H7N9 (20X-20) and H7N7 (34X-2), isolated from the feces of wild birds in South Korea in 2021, were genetically analyzed. The HA cleavage site of the two H7 Korean viruses was confirmed to be ELPKGR/GLF, indicating they are LPAIVs. There were no amino acid substitutions at the receptor-binding site of the HA gene of two H7 Korean viruses compared to that of A/Anhui/1/2013 (H7N9), which prefer human receptors. In the phylogenetic tree analysis, the HA gene of the two H7 Korean viruses shared the highest nucleotide similarity with the Korean H7 subtype AIVs. In addition, the HA gene of the two H7 Korean viruses showed high nucleotide similarity to that of the A/Jiangsu/1/2018(H7N4) virus, which is a human influenza virus originating from avian influenza virus. Most internal genes (PB2, PB1, PA, NP, NA, M, and NS) of the two H7 Korean viruses belonged to the Eurasian lineage, except for the M gene of 34X-2. This result suggests that active reassortment occurred among AIVs. In pathogenicity studies of mice, the two H7 Korean viruses replicated in the lungs of mice. In addition, the body weight of mice infected with 34X-2 decreased 7 days post-infection (dpi) and inflammation was observed in the peribronchiolar and perivascular regions of the lungs of mice. These results suggest that mammals can be infected with the two H7 Korean AIVs. Our data showed that even low pathogenic H7 AIVs may infect mammals, including humans, as confirmed by the A/Jiangsu/1/2018(H7N4) virus. Therefore, continuous monitoring and pathogenicity assessment of AIVs, even of LPAIVs, are required.