Avian influenza viruses present an emerging epidemiological concern as some strains of H5N1 avian influenza can cause severe infections in humans with lethality rates of up to 60%. These have been in circulation since 1997 and recently a novel H7N9-subtyped virus has been causing epizootics in China with lethality rates around 20%. To better understand the replication kinetics of these viruses, we combined several extensive viral kinetics experiments with mathematical modelling of in vitro infections in human A549 cells. We extracted fundamental replication parameters revealing that, while both the H5N1 and H7N9 viruses replicate faster and to higher titers than two low-pathogenicity H1N1 strains, they accomplish this via different mechanisms. While the H7N9 virions exhibit a faster rate of infection, the H5N1 virions are produced at a higher rate. Of the two H1N1 strains studied, the 2009 pandemic H1N1 strain exhibits the longest eclipse phase, possibly indicative of a less effective neuraminidase activity, but causes infection more rapidly than the seasonal strain. This explains, in part, the pandemic strain's generally slower growth kinetics and permissiveness to accept mutations causing neuraminidase inhibitor resistance without significant loss in fitness. Our results highlight differential growth properties of H1N1, H5N1 and H7N9 influenza viruses.
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