Influenza virus in breast milk

Ferret mother-infantDuring breastfeeding, mothers provide the infant with nutrients, beneficial bacteria, and immune protection. Fluids from the infant may also enter the mammary gland through retrograde flux of the nipple. Studies in a ferret model reveal that influenza virus replicates in the mammary gland, is shed in breast milk and transmitted to the infant. Virus may also travel in the opposite direction, from infant to mother.

The role of the mammary gland in influenza virus transmission was studied using a ferret model comprising lactating mothers and nursing infants. Intranasal inoculation of nursing mother ferrets with the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus lead to viral replication and development of influenza in both mother and infant. When the study design was reversed, and 4 week old nursing ferrets were inoculated intranasally with the same virus, viral replication and disease ensued first in the infants, and then in the mothers. Infectious virus was recovered both in the mammary glands and in the nipples at day 4 post infant inoculation, and in mother’s milk from 3-5 days post infant inoculation. Histopathological examination of sections of mammary glands from infected mothers revealed destruction of the mammary architecture.

These results show that nursing infants may pass influenza virus to mothers. It seems clear that influenza virus replicates in the mammary gland and that infectious virus is present in milk. How does this virus infect the mother? One possibility is that infection is transmitted by respiratory contact with virus-containing milk, or by inhalation of aerosols produced by nursing. How influenza virus in the mammary gland would reach the mother’s lung via the blood to cause respiratory disease is more difficult to envision and seems unlikely.

When influenza virus was inoculated into the mammary gland of lactating mothers via the lactiferous ducts, both mother and breast feeding infant developed serious influenza. Infectious virus was detected first in the nasal wash of infants, then later in the nasal wash of mothers. Breast milk contained infectious virus starting on day 2 after inoculation. Histopathological examination of sections from infected mammary glands revealed destruction of glandular architecture and cessation of milk production. This observation is consistent with the results of gene expression analysis of RNA from virus infected mammary glands, which revealed reduction in transcripts of genes associated with milk production.

To determine if human breast cells can be infected with influenza virus, three different human epithelial breast cell lines were infected with the 2009 H1N1 virus strain. Virus-induced cell killing was observed and infectious virus was produced.

Even if we assume that influenza virus can replicate in the human breast, the implications for influenza transmission and disease severity are not clear. Transmission of HIV-1 from mother to infant by breast milk has been well documented. In contrast to influenza virus, HIV-1 is present in the blood from where it spreads to the breast. Most human influenza virus strains do not enter the blood so it seems unlikely that virus would spread to the breast of a mother infected via the respiratory route. However, viral RNA has been detected in the blood of humans infected with the 2009 H1N1 strain, the virus used in these ferret studies. Therefore we cannot rule out the possibility that some strains of influenza virus spread from lung via the blood to the breast, allowing infection of a nursing infant. Some answers might be provided by determining if influenza virus can be detected in the breast milk of humans with influenza.

What would be the implication of a nursing infant infecting the mother’s breast with influenza virus? As I mentioned above, it seems unlikely that this virus would enter the blood, and even if it could, how would the virus infect the apical side of the respiratory epithelium? What does seem clear is that viral replication in the breast could lead to a decrease in milk production which could be detrimental to the infant. If the mother had multiple births, then influenza virus might be transmitted to siblings nursing on the infected mother.

Are you wondering how an infant drinking influenza virus-laded breast milk acquires a respiratory infection? Recently it has been shown that influenza virus replicates in the soft palate of ferrets. The soft palate has mucosal surfaces that face both the oral cavity and the nasopharynx. Ingested virus could first replicate in the soft palate, then spread to the nasopharynx and the lung. A simpler explanation is that nursing produces virus-containing aerosols which are inhaled by the infant.

TWiV 351: The dengue code

On episode #351 of the science show This Week in Virology, the Masters of the ScienTWIVic Universe discuss a novel poxvirus isolate from an immunosuppressed patient, H1N1 and the gain-of-function debate, and attenuation of dengue virus by recoding the genome.

You can find TWiV #351 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

TWiV 343: The silence of the turnips

On episode #343 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiVerinoes discuss the potential for prion spread by plants, global circulation patterns of influenza virus, and the roles of Argonautes and a viral protein in RNA silencing in plants.

You can find TWiV #343 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

TWiV 322: Postcards from the edge of the membrane

On episode #322 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiVodes answer listener email about hantaviruses, antivirals, H1N1 vaccine and narcolepsy, credibility of peer review, Bourbon virus, influenza vaccine, careers in virology, and much more.

You can find TWiV #322 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

Unusual mortality pattern of 1918 influenza A virus

1918 influenza mortalityThe 1918 influenza pandemic was particularly lethal, not only for the very young and the very old (as observed for typical influenza), but unexpectedly also for young adults, 20 to 40 years of age (pictured). It has been suggested that the increased lethality in young adults occurred because they lacked protective immunity that would be conferred by previous infection with a related virus. Reconstruction of the origins of the 1918 influenza virus provides support for this hypothesis.

Analysis of influenza virus genome sequences using a host-specific molecular clock together with seroarchaeology (analysis of stored sera for the presence of antibodies to influenza virus) indicates that the 1918 H1N1 virus arose ~1915 by reassortment of an avian influenza virus with an H1 virus that had previously emerged around 1907. The 1918 virus acquired the HA gene from the 1907 virus, and the NA gene and internal protein genes from an avian virus. This 1918 virus also infected pigs, in which descendants continue to circulate; however the human 1918 virus was displaced in 1922 by a reassortant with a distinct HA gene.

Seroarchaeology and mortality data indicate that an influenza pandemic in 1889-1893 was caused by an influenza H3N8 virus. This virus appears to have circulated until 1900, when it was replaced by a H1N8 virus (the N8 gene originating from the previously circulating H3N8 virus).

How do these events explain the unusual mortality pattern of the 1918 influenza A virus? High mortality among 20-40 year old adults might have been a consequence of their exposure to the H3N8 virus that circulated from 1889-1900. This infection provided no protection against the 1918 H1N1 virus. Protection of other age groups from lethal infection was likely a consequence of childhood exposure to N1 or H1 containing viruses (this may also have resulted in the lower than usual mortality in the elderly population). Influenza is typically highly lethal in very young children due to lack of immunologic memory.

These observations suggest that childhood exposure to influenza virus is a key predictor of virulence of a pandemic strain. Antibodies against the stalk of the HA protein protect against severe disease, but only within groups of HA subtypes (HA groups are determined by phylogenetic analysis). In 1918, antibodies against a group 2 HA subtype virus (H3) did not protect against severe disease caused by a group 1 HA subtype virus (H1). Childhood exposure might also determine mortality of seasonal influenza. For example, the high virulence of currently circulating H3N2 influenza viruses in those older than 65 years might be a consequence of infection with an H1N1 virus at a young age.

This logic can also explain mortality caused by influenza H5N1 and H7N9 viruses. Most fatalities caused by H5N1 viruses (the H5 is a group 1 HA) have been in individuals who were infected as children with an H3 virus (group 2 HA). Most fatalities caused by H7N9 viruses (group 2 HA) have occurred in individuals who were infected as children with H1N1 or H2N2 viruses (group 1 HA).

The practical consequence of this work are clearly stated by the authors:

Immunization strategies that mimic the apparently powerful lifetime protection afforded by initial childhood exposure might dramatically reduce mortality due to both seasonal and novel IAV strains.

TWiV 241: The ferret looks ill

On episode #241 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, Rich and Kathy review how human placental trophoblasts confer viral resistance via exosome-mediated delivery of microRNAs, and isolation of the first human influenza virus in 1933.

You can find TWiV #241 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

Inefficient influenza H7N9 virus aerosol transmission among ferrets

ferretThere have been 131 confirmed human infections with avian influenza H7N9 virus in China, but so far there is little evidence for human to human transmission. Three out of four patients report exposure to animals, ‘mostly chickens‘, suggesting that most of the infections are zoonoses. Whether or not the virus will evolve to transmit among humans is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile it has been found that one of the H7N9 virus isolates from Shanghai can transmit by aerosol among ferrets, albeit inefficiently.

Ferrets were inoculated intranasally with influenza A/Shanghai/02/2013 virus or A/California/07/2009, the 2009 pandemic H1N1 virus. One to two days later the ferrets developed fever, sneezing, coughing, and nasal discharge; both viruses induced similar clinical signs. Virus was shed in nasal secretions for 7 days. Six infected ferrets were then divided among three separate cages, and each group was housed with a naive ferret, and a second uninfected animal was placed in an adjacent cage. Airflow was controlled so that air flowed from the cage of infected animals towards the cage of naive animals. Transmission of infection was measured by observing clinical signs, and measuring virus shedding in nasal secretions and hemagglutination-inhibition antibodies in serum.

Of the three ferrets housed in the same cage with H7N9 virius-infected animals, all three had signs of infection (sneeze, cough, nasal discharge), shed virus in nasal secretions, and developed anti-HA antibodies. All three ferrets in neighboring cages developed signs of infection, but only one shed virus in nasal secretions, and two of three seroconverted. From these data the authors conclude that H7N9 virus is ‘efficiently transmitted between ferrets by direct contact, but less efficiently by airborne exposure’. In contrast, transmission of H1N1 virus to naive ferrets by contact or aerosol was efficient (3/3 animals in both cases).

The authors also found that pigs could be infected intranasally with A/Shanghai/02/2013 virus: the animals shed virus in nasal secretions and developed clinical symptoms. However the infected pigs transmitted infection inefficiently to other pigs by contact or aerosol, or to ferrets by aerosol.

The  authors’ equivocal conclusion that “Under appropriate conditions human to human transmission of the H7N9 virus may be possible” could have been reached even before these experiments were done. Their results provide no information on whether the virus can undergo human to human transmission because animal models are not definitive predictors of what might occur in humans. I disagree with the authors’ statement on page 5, “Efficient transmission of influenza viruses in ferrets is considered as a predictor of human to human transmissibility’. While many influenza virus strains that transmit among humans by aerosol also do so in ferrets, this does not mean that human transmission of a novel virus can be predicted by animal experiments.

Infection of ferrets with A/Shanghai/02/2013 or or A/California/07/2009 virus results in mild disease with no mortality. In contrast, 32 humans infected with H7N9 virus have died, and many humans have died after H1N1 infection. These findings further emphasize the differences in influenza virus pathogenesis in ferrets and humans.

TWiV 233: We’re surrounded

On episode #233 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Rich, Alan and Kathy review aerosol transmission studies of influenza H1N1 x H5N1 reassortants, H7N9 infections in China, and the MERS coronavirus.

You can find TWiV #233 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

Further defense of the Chinese H1N1 – H5N1 study

Robert Herriman of The Global Dispatch interviewed me this week on the H1N1 – H5N1 reassortant study that has been in the headlines:

There was much written concerning the research published earlier this month in Science, where researchers from China’s Harbin Veterinary Research Institute reported creating an  avian H5N1 (highly pathogenic) and pandemic 2009 H1N1 (easily transmissible) hybrid, that according to them, achieved airborne spread between guinea pigs.

Read the rest of the article at The Global Dispatch.

Influenza H5N1 x H1N1 reassortants: ignore the headlines, it’s good science

Those of you with an interest in virology, or perhaps simply sensationalism, have probably seen the recent headlines proclaiming another laboratory-made killer influenza virus. From The Independent: ‘Appalling irresponsibility: Senior scientists attack Chinese researchers for creating new strains of influenza virus’; and from InSing.com: ‘Made-in-China killer flu virus’. It’s unfortunate that the comments of several scientists have tainted what is a very well done set of experiments. Let’s deconstruct the situation with an analysis of the science that was done.

It is known that avian influenza H5N1 viruses can occasionally infect but not transmit among humans, while the 2009 pandemic H1N1 virus (which continues to circulate) readily transmits from person to person. The investigators asked whether reassortants of the two viruses – which could arise in nature – might confer transmissibility to H5N1 virus. To answer this question they produced 127 different reassortants of the two viruses, and tested their ability to transmit by aerosol among guinea pigs. The latter have been used for transmission studies on influenza, notably to understand the seasonality of infection. Ferrets have been more famously used for influenza virus transmission studies.

Rather than describe the results, I’ve made an illustration that shows what I believe to be the most important conclusions of the study (click for a larger version):

h1n1 h5n1 reassortants

The H5N1 virus (red RNAs) is not transmissible among guinea pigs, while the H1N1 virus (green RNAs) has highly efficient transmission. Exchange of the H5N1 RNA coding for PA or NS from H1N1 produces a highly transmissible virus. Exchange of the H5N1 RNA coding for NA or M produces a less efficiently transmitted virus. These are interesting and novel findings. It will be of great interest to determine how the PA, NS, NA, or M genes mechanistically enhance aerosol transmission. This is important information because our understanding of the determinants of transmission is very poor.

All the reassortant viruses shown in the figure have the H5 HA; when only the H1 of the H1N1 virus was substituted with the H5 HA, the reassortant virus transmitted efficiently among guinea pigs. In ferrets the H5 HA is not compatible with aerosol transmission. Therefore guinea pigs are clearly different from ferrets with respect to the determinants of transmissibility.

I cannot understand why some scientists have called these experiments ‘appallingly irresponsible’ and of no scientific use. I can only assume that they are not familiar with the literature on viral transmission and do not appreciate how the results advance our understanding of the field. It also seems irresponsible to predict that these viruses, should they escape from the laboratory, could kill millions of people. If you accept guinea pigs as a predictor of human pathogenicity – which I do not – then there is no reason for fear because none of the reassortants were lethal. I do not believe that any animal model predicts what will occur in humans, and so I am even less concerned about the safety of these experiments. I firmly believe that laboratory-constructed viruses do not have what it takes to be a human pathogen: only viral evolution in nature can produce the right combination of RNA segments and mutations. I also believe that scientists are quite responsible when it comes to safe handling of pathogens. If we worry about every type of transmission experiment involving influenza H5N1 virus, we will never make progress in understanding why this virus does not transmit among humans. The moratorium on H5N1 transmission research is over; let’s move beyond the sensational headlines and get back to the science.

In summary, I believe that these are well designed experiments which show that single RNA exchanges with H1N1 virus can produce an H5N1 virus that transmits via aerosol among guinea pigs. The relevance of these findings to humans is not known; nevertheless understanding how the individual viral proteins identified in this study enhance transmission may be mechanistically informative. I believe that the news headlines depicting these experiments as irresponsible and dangerous are based on uninformed statements made by scientists who are not familiar with the literature on influenza virus transmission. I wonder if they even read the paper in its entirety before making their comments.