Royal Society Publishing

The evolution of human influenza viruses


The evolution of influenza viruses results in (i) recurrent annual epidemics of disease that are caused by progressive antigenic drift of influenza A and B viruses due to the mutability of the RNA genome and (ii) infrequent but severe pandemics caused by the emergence of novel influenza A subtypes to which the population has little immunity. The latter characteristic is a consequence of the wide antigenic diversity and peculiar host range of influenza A viruses and the ability of their segmented RNA genomes to undergo frequent genetic reassortment (recombination) during mixed infections. Contrasting features of the evolution of recently circulating influenza AH1N1, AH3N2 and B viruses include the rapid drift of AH3N2 viruses as a single lineage, the slow replacement of successive antigenic variants of AH1N1 viruses and the co–circulation over some 25 years of antigenically and genetically distinct lineages of influenza B viruses. Constant monitoring of changes in the circulating viruses is important for maintaining the efficacy of influenza vaccines in combating disease.

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