The efforts exerted to prevent circulation of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 virus in birds are the best way to prevent the emergence of a new virus subtype with pandemic potential. Despite the blanket vaccination strategy against HPAI H5N1 in Egypt, continuous circulation of the virus in poultry has increased since late 2007 as a result of the presence of genetic and antigenic distinct variant strains that have escaped during the immune response of vaccinated birds. Although the suspected poultry flocks have had signs and lesions commonly seen in HPAI H5N1–infected birds, escape of variant strains from detection by real-time reverse transcriptase–PCR (RRT-PCR) was observed. Sequence analysis of these variants revealed multiple single nucleotide substitutions in the primers and probe target sequences of the H5 gene by real-time RT-PCR. This study describes the results of RRT-PCR, modified from an existing protocol with regard to the detection of the partial H5 gene segment of the Egyptian H5N1 divergent viruses and applied to nationwide surveillance. The modified RRT-PCR assay was more sensitive than the original one in the detection of Egyptian isolates, with 104% amplification efficiency. Sixty-one field samples were found to be positive in our assay, but only 51 samples tested positive by the original protocol and were more sensitive than matrix gene RRT-PCR detection assay. A detection limit of 10 mean embryo infective dose (EID50) with the updated oligonucleotides primers and probe set was found. For the foreseeable future, mutation of H5N1 viruses and the endemic situation in developing countries require continuous improvement of current diagnostics to aid in the containment of the H5N1 virus in poultry sectors and to lower the threat of influenza virus spread.
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Vol. 54 • No. 4