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Keywords:

  • Antigenic site mutations;
  • genetic and antigenic characterization;
  • phylogenetic analysis;
  • positive selection analysis;
  • seasonal influenza A (H3N2) virus

Background

The direct effect of antigenic site mutations in influenza viruses on antigenic drift and vaccine effectiveness is poorly understood.

Objective

To investigate the genetic and antigenic characteristics of human influenza A (H3N2) viruses circulating in Ontario during the early 2010–2011 winter season.

Study design

We sequenced the hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA) genes from 41 A(H3N2) viruses detected in nasopharyngeal specimens. Strain typing was performed by hemagglutination inhibition (HI) assay. Molecular and phylogenetic tree analyses were conducted.

Results

HA and NA genes showed high similarity to the 2010–2011 vaccine strain, A/Perth/16/2009 (H3N2)-like virus (97·7–98·5% and 98·7–99·5% amino acid (AA) identity, respectively). Compared to A/Perth/16/2009 strain, HA gene mutations were documented at 28 different AA positions across all five H3 antigenic sites, with a range of 5–11 mutations in individual viruses. Thirty-six (88%) viruses had 8 AA substitutions in common; none of these had reduced HI titer. Among Ontario isolates, 11 antigenic site AAs were positively selected with an increase in glycosylation sites.

Conclusion

The presence of antigenic site mutations with high frequency among 2010–2011 influenza H3N2 isolates confirms ongoing adaptive H3N2 evolution. These may represent early phylogenetic changes that could cause antigenic drift with further mutations. Clinical relevance of antigenic site mutations not causing drift in HI assays is unknown and requires further investigation. In addition, viral sequencing information will assist with vaccine strain planning and may facilitate early detection of vaccine escape.