• Cross-reactive antibodies;
  • H5N1;
  • Influenza;
  • Memory B cells;
  • Vaccination

Cross-protection against divergent strains of influenza virus is an objective of various vaccination approaches. B cells cross-neutralizing several influenza A heterosubtypes have been isolated from cultured human memory B cells (MBCs) and plasmablasts early after influenza vaccination or infection. However, a systematic assessment of the frequency of MBCs and plasmablasts in the blood of healthy individuals is lacking. Here, we show that under resting conditions about 45% of human adults never vaccinated nor exposed to avian A/H5N1 influenza have detectable circulating MBCs cross-reacting with H5N1. This proportion rises to 63.3% among subjects with a large pool of MBCs specific for seasonal H1N1 (i.e. frequency ≥1% of total IgG MBCs). Moreover, subjects with high baseline frequencies of H1N1-specific MBCs had an expansion of H5N1-specific MBCs producing H5-neutralizing antibodies already after the first dose of an MF59-adjuvanted H5N1 vaccine. These results suggest that H1N1-specific MBCs contain a subset of cells cross-reacting to H5. We propose that a proportion of human adults have a pool of H5/H1 cross-reactive MBCs that contribute to the rapid rise of the antibody response to divergent influenza strains. This may have implications on vaccination strategies aimed at counteracting future influenza pandemics.