Inherent heterogeneity of influenza A virus stability following aerosolization

Efficient human-to-human transmission represents a necessary adaptation for a zoonotic influenza A virus (IAV) to cause a pandemic. As such, many emerging IAVs are characterized for transmissibility phenotypes in mammalian models, with an emphasis on elucidating viral determinants of transmission and the role host immune responses contribute to mammalian adaptation. Investigations of virus infectivity and stability in aerosols concurrent with transmission assessments have increased in recent years, enhancing our understanding of this dynamic process. Here, we employ a diverse panel of 17 human and zoonotic IAVs, inclusive of seasonally circulating H1N1 and H3N2 viruses, and avian and swine viruses associated with human infection, to evaluate differences in spray factor (a value that assesses efficiency of the aerosolization process), stability, and infectivity following aerosolization. While most seasonal influenza viruses did not exhibit substantial variability within these parameters, there was more heterogeneity among zoonotic influenza viruses, which possess a diverse range of transmission phenotypes. Aging of aerosols at different relative humidities identified strain-specific levels of stability with different profiles identified between zoonotic H3, H5, and H7 subtype viruses associated with human infection. As studies continue to elucidate the complex components governing virus transmissibility, notably aerosol matrices and environmental parameters, considering the relative role of subtype- and strain-specific factors to modulate these parameters will improve our understanding of the pandemic potential of zoonotic influenza A viruses. Importance Transmission of respiratory pathogens through the air can facilitate the rapid and expansive spread of infection and disease through a susceptible population. While seasonal influenza viruses are quite capable of airborne spread, there is a lack of knowledge regarding how well influenza viruses remain viable after aerosolization, and if influenza viruses capable of jumping species barriers to cause human infection differ in this property from seasonal strains. We evaluated a diverse panel of influenza viruses associated with human infection (originating from human, avian, and swine reservoirs) for their ability to remain viable after aerosolization in the laboratory under a range of conditions. We found greater diversity among avian and swine-origin viruses compared with seasonal influenza viruses; strain-specific stability was also noted. Although influenza virus stability in aerosols is an underreported property, if molecular markers associated with enhanced stability are identified, we will be able to quickly recognize emerging strains of influenza that present the greatest pandemic threat.