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The endemic status of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAIV) of subtype H5N1 in Egypt continues to devastate the local poultry industry and poses a permanent threat for human health. Several genetically and antigenically distinct H5N1 lineages co-circulate in Egypt: Strains of clade 2.2.1 proper replicate mainly in backyard birds causing the bulk of human infections, while a variant lineage within 2.2.1 (2.2.1 v) appears to be perpetuated mainly in commercial poultry farms in Egypt. Viruses of the 2.2.1 v lineage represent drift variants escaping from conventional vaccine-induced immunity and some of these strains also escaped detection by commercial real time reverse transcriptase PCR (RT-qPCR) protocols due to mismatches in the primers/probe binding sites.
We developed therefore a versatile, sensitive and lineage-specific multiplex RT-qPCR for detection and typing of H5N1 viruses in Egypt. Analytical characterization was carried out using 50 Egyptian HPAIV H5N1 strains isolated since 2006 and 45 other avian influenza viruses (AIV). A detection limit of 400 cRNA copies per ml sample matrix was found. Higher diagnostic sensitivity of the multiplex assay in comparison to other generic H5 or M-gene based RT-qPCR assays were found by examination of 63 swab samples from experimentally infected chickens and 50 AIV-positive swab samples from different host species in the field in Egypt.
The new multiplex RT-qPCR assay could be useful for rapid high-throughput monitoring for the presence of HPAIV H5N1 in commercial poultry in Egypt. It may also aid in prospective epidemiological studies to further delineate and better control spread of HPAIV H5N1 in Egypt.