Antigenic drift in influenza virus H3 hemagglutinin from 1968 to 1980: multiple evolutionary pathways and sequential amino acid changes at key antigenic sites

Surveys of the antigenic properties of a wide range of variants of the H3N2 (Hong Kong) influenza virus subtype have revealed complex patterns of variants cocirculating during each of the main epidemic eras of the subtype. We determined hemagglutinin (HA) gene sequences for 14 isolates chosen to give the wildest possible spread of variant types. The addition of these data to existing HA gene sequence information for other variants provides a comprehensive picture of HA gene evolution during antigenic drift among H3N2 subtype viruses. The data reveal the existence of multiple evolutionary pathways during at least one period of development of the subtype and strikingly demonstrate that amino acid changes are limited to a small number of locations on the HA molecule during antigenic drift. The occurrence of sequential amino acid changes at key positions within these variable regions suggests that the HA structure has remained constant during subtype evolution so that only limited possibilities remain for further antigenic drift among H3N2 viruses.