Receptor binding profiles of avian influenza virus hemagglutinin subtypes on human cells as a predictor of pandemic potential

The host adaptation of influenza virus is partly dependent on the sialic acid (SA) isoform bound by the viral hemagglutinin (HA). Avian influenza viruses preferentially bind the alpha-2,3 SA and human influenza viruses the alpha-2,6 isoform. Each isoform is predominantly associated with different surface epithelial cell types of the human upper airway. Using recombinant HAs and human tracheal airway epithelial cells in vitro and ex vivo, we show that many avian HA subtypes do not adhere to this canonical view of SA specificity. The propensity of avian viruses to adapt to human receptors may thus be more widespread than previously supposed.

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