Homologous PB1 gene promotes the replication efficiency of avian influenza H7N4 candidate vaccine virus

Background: The first and only case of human infection with the avian influenza A (H7N4) virus in China emerged in 2018. The H7N4 virus was distinct from previous H7N9 viruses and raised public concerns. Therefore, developing a suitable H7N4 candidate vaccine virus (CVV) remains crucial for potential pandemic preparedness.

Methods: We constructed a reassortant virus with a (6 + 2) genome composition, then introduced the polymerase basic protein 1 (PB1) from a wild-type virus to develop a (5 + 3) reassortant virus through reverse genetics. We performed whole-genome sequencing to confirm the genome stability, assessed the growth ability in MDCK cells, and analyzed virus antigenicity using hemagglutination inhibition assays. Subsequently, the effect of homologous PB1 on polymerase activity, viral protein yield, and pathogenicity was assessed.

Results: The (5 + 3) virus harbouring the homologous PB1 gene exhibited significantly improved growth characteristics, higher viral protein yield, and polymerase activity than the (6 + 2) virus. After successive passage in embryonated eggs, glutamic acid (E) substituted glycine(G) at position 218 (H3 numbering) in the hemagglutinin (HA) gene of both (5 + 3) and (6 + 2) viruses. The substitution improved the growth of the (6 + 2) virus but exhibited no significant effect or alteration on the antigenicity of the (5 + 3) virus. Moreover, the (5 + 3) virus exhibited low pathogenicity in chickens and ferrets.

Conclusion: Homologous PB1 of the H7N4 virus improves the growth ability while sustaining low pathogenicity. Collectively, the gene composition of the (5 + 3) reassortant virus is a suitable H7N4 CVV for potential pandemic preparedness.