Molecular characterization and phylogenetic analysis of human influenza A viruses in three consecutive seasons with different epidemiological profiles


Introduction. Influenza activity and influenza virus circulation were observed in Lombardy (northern Italy) during three con- secutive seasons and the molecular characteristics of circulating viruses analysed to control for introduction of new variants. Methods. The molecular characterization of 38 isolates, namely 20 A/H3N2 and 18 A/H1N1 influenza strains from the 2005/06, 2006/07 and 2007/08 seasons, was performed by sequence analy- sis of the globular head region of the HA protein (HA1 subunit), specific for influenza virus A/H3 and A/H1. Results and discussion. The last three influenza seasons in the study region were characterized by medium-low activity. A typical co-circulation of several variants was shown for A/H3 viruses for approximately two years and were subsequently almost entirely substituted by new emerging variants. Vice versa, A/H1 viruses had a more homogeneous circulation with a single lineage clearly dominating each season. The HA sequences of the A/H3 and the A/H1 viruses isolated in the last three seasons fell into 4 and 3 principal phylogenetic groups, respectively. No evidence of positive or negative selection in the sequence align- ments was observed. Conclusions. Molecular characterization of the influenza viruses in three consecutive seasons highlighted considerable heteroge- neity in their HA sequences. A careful surveillance of genetic changes in the HA1 domain during seasonal influenza epidemics may reveal immune escape and provide early information on newly emerging strains with epidemiologic inference.