While several swine-origin influenza A H3N2 variant (H3N2v) viruses isolated from humans prior to 2011 have been previously characterized for their virulence and transmissibility in ferrets, recent genetic and antigenic divergence of H3N2v viruses warrants an updated assessment of their pandemic potential. Here, four contemporary H3N2v viruses isolated during 2011-2016 were evaluated for their replicative ability in both in vitro and in vivo mammalian models, as well as their transmissibility among ferrets. We found that all four H3N2v viruses possessed similar or enhanced replication capacity in a human bronchial epithelium cell line (Calu-3) compared to a human seasonal influenza virus, suggestive of strong fitness in human respiratory tract cells. The majority of H3N2v viruses examined in our study were mildly virulent in mice and capable of replicating in mouse lungs with different degrees of efficiency. In ferrets, all four H3N2v viruses caused moderate morbidity and exhibited comparable titers in the upper respiratory tract, but only 2 of the 4 viruses replicated in the lower respiratory tract in this model. Furthermore, despite efficient transmission among cohoused ferrets, recently isolated H3N2v viruses displayed considerable variance in their ability to transmit by respiratory droplets. The lack of a full understanding of the molecular correlates of virulence and transmission underscores the need for close genotypic and phenotypic monitoring of H3N2v viruses and the importance of continued surveillance to improve pandemic preparedness.
Importance: Swine-origin influenza viruses of the H3N2 subtype, with the HA and NA derived from historic human seasonal influenza viruses, continue to cross species barriers and cause human infections, posing an indelible threat to public health. To help us better understand the potential risk associated with swine-origin H3N2v viruses that emerged in the U.S between 2011-2016 influenza seasons, we use both in vitro and in vivo models to characterize the ability of these viruses to replicate, caused disease, and transmit in mammalian hosts. The efficient respiratory droplet transmission exhibited by some of the H3N2v viruses in the ferret model combined with the existing evidence of low immunity against such viruses in young children and older adults highlights their pandemic potential. Extensive surveillance and risk assessment of H3N2v viruses should continue to be an essential component of our pandemic preparedness strategy.