Genetic relationship between poultry and wild bird viruses during the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N6 epidemic in the Netherlands, 2017–2018

Beerens, N.; Heutink, R.; Pritz-Verschuren, S.; Germeraad, E.A.; Bergervoet, S.A.; Harders, F.; Bossers, A.; Koch, G.


In the Netherlands, three commercial poultry farms and two hobby holdings were infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N6 virus in the winter of 2017–2018. This H5N6 virus is a reassortant of HPAI H5N8 clade group B viruses detected in Eurasia in 2016. H5N6 viruses were also detected in several dead wild birds during the winter. However, wild bird mortality was limited compared to the caused by the H5N8 group B virus in 2016–2017. H5N6 virus was not detected in wild birds after March, but in late summer infected wild birds were found again. In this study, the complete genome sequences of poultry and wild bird viruses were determined to study their genetic relationship. Genetic analysis showed that the outbreaks in poultry were not the result of farm-to-farm transmissions, but rather resulted from separate introductions from wild birds. Wild birds infected with viruses related to the first outbreak in poultry were found at short distances from the farm, within a short time frame. However, no wild bird viruses related to outbreaks 2 and 3 were detected. The H5N6 virus isolated in summer shares a common ancestor with the virus detected in outbreak 1. This suggests long-term circulation of H5N6 virus in the local wild bird population. In addition, the pathogenicity of H5N6 virus in ducks was determined, and compared to that of H5N8 viruses detected in 2014 and 2016. A similar high pathogenicity was measured for H5N6 and H5N8 group B viruses, suggesting that biological or ecological factors in the wild bird population may have affected the mortality rates during the H5N6 epidemic. These observations suggest different infection dynamics for the H5N6 and H5N8 group B viruses in the wild bird population.