Evolutional dynamics of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N8 genotypes in wintering bird habitats: Insights from South Korea´s 2020-2021 season

The winter of 2020-2021 in South Korea witnessed severe outbreaks of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) viruses, specifically multiple genotypes of the H5N8 subtype. These outbreaks prompted an extensive investigation into the genetic characteristics and evolutionary dynamics of these viruses. Under the auspices of the National Institute of Wildlife Disease Control and Prevention (NIWDC), we conducted a nationwide surveillance program, collecting 7588 specimens from diverse wild bird habitats. Influenza A viruses were isolated at a rate of 5.0%, with HPAI H5N8 viruses accounting for 38.5% of isolates, predominantly found in wild bird carcasses (97.3%). Genetic analysis revealed the emergence of novel HPAI genotypes due to genetic reassortment events. G1 and G2 viruses were separately introduced into Korea, with G1 viruses displaying dynamic behavior, resulting in diverse sub-genotypes (G1-1 to G1-5) and mainly isolated from clinical specimens. Conversely, the G2 virus, introduced later, became the dominant strain consistently isolated mainly from bird carcasses (88.9%). These findings underscore the emergence of numerous novel HPAI genotypes shaped by multiple reassortment events in high-density wintering grounds of migratory birds. These sites act as hotspots for genetic exchanges, significantly influencing avian ecology, including resident bird species, and contributing to HPAI H5N8 evolution. The genetic diversity and ongoing evolution of these viruses highlight the need for vigilant surveillance and adaptive control measures. Recognizing the potential spillover to human populations, a One Health approach is essential to mitigate the evolving threats posed by avian influenza.