Novel H5N6 reassortants bearing the clade HA gene of H5N8 virus have been detected in poultry and caused multiple human infections in China

The globally circulating H5N8 avian influenza viruses bearing the clade hemagglutinin (HA) gene are responsible for the loss of more than 33 million domestic poultry since January 2020. Moreover, the H5N8 viruses have reassorted with other avian influenza viruses and formed H5N1, H5N2, H5N3, H5N4, and H5N5 viruses in Europe, Africa, and North America. In this study, we analyzed 15 H5N6 viruses isolated from poultry and seven H5N6 viruses isolated from humans, and found these viruses formed seven different genotypes by deriving the clade HA gene of H5N8 viruses, the neuraminidase of domestic duck H5N6 viruses, and internal genes of different viruses that previously circulated in domestic ducks and wild birds in China. Two of these genotypes (genotype 3 and genotype 6) have caused human infections in multiple provinces. The H5N6 viruses isolated from poultry have distinct pathotypes in mice; some of them replicate systemically and are highly lethal in mice. Although these viruses exclusively bind to avian-type receptors, it is worrisome that they may obtain key mutations that would increase their affinity for human-type receptors during replication in humans. Our study indicates that the novel H5N6 reassortants bearing the clade HA gene of H5N8 viruses were generated through reassortment in domestic ducks and may have spread across a wide area of China, thereby posing a new challenge to the poultry industry and human health. Our findings emphasize the importance of careful monitoring, evaluation, and control of the H5N6 viruses circulating in nature.