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Evolution and divergence of H3N8 equine influenza viruses circulating in the United Kingdom from 2013 to 2015

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posted on 02.10.2020 by Adam Rash, Rachel Morton, Alana Woodward, Olivia Maes, John McCauley, Neil Bryant, Debra Elton
Equine influenza viruses (EIV) are a major cause of acute respiratory disease in horses worldwide and occasionally also affect vaccinated animals. Like other influenza A viruses, they undergo antigenic drift, highlighting the importance of both surveillance and virus characterisation in order for vaccine strains to be kept up to date. The aim of the work reported here was to monitor the genetic and antigenic changes occurring in EIV circulating in the UK from 2013 to 2015 and to identify any evidence of vaccine breakdown in the field. Virus isolation, reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and sequencing were performed on EIV-positive nasopharyngeal swab samples submitted to the Diagnostic Laboratory Services at the Animal Health Trust (AHT). Phylogenetic analyses were completed for the haemagglutinin-1 (HA1) and neuraminidase (NA) genes using PhyML and amino acid sequences compared against the current World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)-recommended Florida clade 2 vaccine strain. Substitutions between the new isolates and the vaccine strain were mapped onto the three-dimensional structure protein structures using PyMol. Antigenic analyses were carried out by haemagglutination inhibition assay using a panel of post-infection ferret antisera. Sixty-nine outbreaks of equine influenza in the UK were reported by the AHT between January 2013 and December 2015. Forty-seven viruses were successfully isolated in eggs from 41 of the outbreaks. Only three cases of vaccine breakdown were identified and in each case the vaccine used contained a virus antigen not currently recommended for equine influenza vaccines. Nucleotide sequencing of the HA and NA genes revealed that all of the viruses belonged to the Florida clade 2 sub-lineage of H3N8 EIV. Phylogenetic and sequence analyses showed that the two sub-populations, previously identified within clade 2, continued to circulate and had accrued further amino acid substitutions. Antigenic characterisation using post-infection ferret antisera in haemagglutination inhibition assays however, failed to detect any marked antigenic differences between the isolates. These findings show that Florida clade 2 EIV continue to circulate in the UK and support the current OIE recommendation to include an example of Florida clade 2 in vaccines.

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