Evolutionary Dynamics of H5 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Viruses (Clade Circulating in Bulgaria in 2019-2021

The first detection of a Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N8 virus in Bulgaria dates back to December 2016. Since then, many outbreaks caused by HPAI H5 viruses from clade have been reported in both domestic and wild birds in different regions of the country. In this study, we characterized the complete genome of sixteen H5 viruses collected in Bulgaria between 2019 and 2021. Phylogenetic analyses revealed a persistent circulation of the H5N8 strain for four consecutive years (December 2016-June 2020) and the emergence in 2020 of a novel reassortant H5N2 subtype, likely in a duck farm. Estimation of the time to the most recent common ancestor indicates that this reassortment event may have occurred between May 2019 and January 2020. At the beginning of 2021, Bulgaria experienced a new virus introduction in the poultry sector, namely a HPAI H5N8 that had been circulating in Europe since October 2020. The periodical identification in domestic birds of H5 viruses related to the 2016 epidemic as well as a reassortant strain might indicate undetected circulation of the virus in resident wild birds or in the poultry sector. To avoid the concealed circulation and evolution of viruses, and the risk of emergence of strains with pandemic potential, the implementation of control measures is of utmost importance, particularly in duck farms where birds display no clinical signs.