Comparative pathogenicity and transmissibility of pandemic H1N1, avian H5N1, and human H7N9 influenza viruses in tree shrews

Influenza A viruses (IAVs) continuously challenge the poultry industry and human health. Studies of IAVs are still hampered by the availability of suitable animal models. Chinese tree shrews (Tupaia belangeri chinensis) are closely related to primates physiologically and genetically, which make them a potential animal model for human diseases. In this study, we comprehensively evaluated infectivity and transmissibility in Chinese tree shrews by using pandemic H1N1 (A/Sichuan/1/2009, pdmH1N1), avian-origin H5N1 (A/Chicken/Gansu/2/2012, H5N1) and early human-origin H7N9 (A/Suzhou/SZ19/2014, H7N9) IAVs. We found that these viruses replicated efficiently in primary tree shrew cells and tree shrews without prior adaption. Pathological lesions in the lungs of the infected tree shrews were severe on day 3 post-inoculation, although clinic symptoms were self-limiting. The pdmH1N1 and H7N9 viruses, but not the H5N1 virus, transmitted among tree shrews by direct contact. Interestingly, we also observed that unadapted H7N9 virus could transmit from tree shrews to naive guinea pigs. Virus-inoculated tree shrews generated a strong humoral immune response and were protected from challenge with homologous virus. Taken together, our findings suggest the Chinese tree shrew would be a useful mammalian model to study the pathogenesis and transmission of IAVs.

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