Compared to seasonal influenza viruses, the 2009 pandemic H1N1 (pH1N1) virus caused greater morbidity and mortality in children and young adults. People over 60 years of age showed a higher prevalence of cross-reactive pH1N1 antibodies, suggesting that they were previously exposed to an influenza virus or vaccine that was antigenically related to the pH1N1 virus. To define the basis for this cross-reactivity, ferrets were infected with H1N1 viruses of variable antigenic distance that circulated during different decades from the 1930s (Alaska/35), 1940s (Fort Monmouth/47), 1950s (Fort Warren/50), and 1990s (New Caledonia/99) and challenged with 2009 pH1N1 virus 6 weeks later. Ferrets primed with the homologous CA/09 or New Jersey/76 (NJ/76) virus served as a positive control, while the negative control was an influenza B virus that should not cross-protect against influenza A virus infection. Significant protection against challenge virus replication in the respiratory tract was observed in ferrets primed with AK/35, FM/47, and NJ/76; FW/50-primed ferrets showed reduced protection, and NC/99-primed ferrets were not protected. The hemagglutinins (HAs) of AK/35, FM/47, and FW/50 differ in the presence of glycosylation sites. We found that the loss of protective efficacy observed with FW/50 was associated with the presence of a specific glycosylation site. Our results suggest that changes in the HA occurred between 1947 and 1950, such that prior infection could no longer protect against 2009 pH1N1 infection. This provides a mechanistic understanding of the nature of serological cross-protection observed in people over 60 years of age during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
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