Mirolo M, Pohlmann A, Ahrens AK, Kühl B, Rubio-Gar. Highly pathogenic avian influenza A virus (HPAIV) H5N1 infection in two European grey seals ( Halichoerus grypus) with encephalitis. Emerg Microbes Infect. 2023 Sep 8:2257810
Recent reports documenting sporadic infections in carnivorous mammals worldwide with highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAIV) H5N1 clade 220.127.116.11b have raised concerns about the potential risk of adaptation to sustained transmission in mammals, including humans. We report H5N1 clade 18.104.22.168b infection of two grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) from coastal waters of The Netherlands and Germany in December 2022 and February 2023, respectively. Histological and immunohistochemical investigations showed in both animals a non-suppurative and necrotizing encephalitis with viral antigen restricted to the neuroparenchyma. Whole genome sequencing showed the presence of HPAIV H5N1 clade 22.214.171.124b strains in brain tissue, which were closely related to sympatric avian influenza viruses. Viral RNA was also detected in the lung of the seal from Germany by real-time quantitative PCR. No other organs tested positive. The mammalian adaptation PB2-E627K mutation was identified in approximately 40% of the virus population present in the brain tissue of the German seal. Retrospective screening for nucleoprotein specific antibodies, of sera collected from 251 seals sampled in this region from 2020 to 2023, did not show evidence of influenza A virus specific antibodies. Similarly, screening by reverse transcription PCR of lung and brain tissue of 101 seals that had died along the Dutch coast in the period 2020-2021, did not show evidence of influenza virus infection. Collectively, these results indicate that individual seals are sporadically infected with HPAIV-H5N1 clade 126.96.36.199b, resulting in an encephalitis in the absence of a systemic infection, and with no evidence thus far of onward spread between seals.
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