Seasonal influenza is caused by two influenza A subtype (H1N1 and H3N2) and two influenza B lineage (Victoria and Yamagata) viruses. Of these antigenically distinct viruses, the H3N2 virus was consistently detected in substantial proportions in Korea during the 2010/ 11-2013/14 seasons when compared to the other viruses and appeared responsible for the influenza-like illness rate peak during the first half of the 2011/12 season. To further scrutinize possible causes for this, we investigated the evolutionary and serological relationships between the vaccine and Korean H3N2 strains during the 2011/12 season for the main antigenic determinants of influenza viruses, the hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA) genes. In the 2011/12 season, when the number of H3N2 cases peaked, the majority of the Korean strains did not belong to the HA clade of A/Perth/16/2009 vaccine, and no Korean strains were of this lineage in the NA segment. In a serological assay, post-vaccinated human sera exhibited much reduced hemagglutination inhibition antibody titers against the non-vaccine clade Korean H3N2 strains. Moreover, Korean strains harbored several amino acid differences in the HA antigenic sites and in the NA with respect to vaccine lineages during this season. Of these, the HA antigenic site C residues 45 and 261 and the NA residue 81 appeared to be the signatures of positive selection. In subsequent seasons, when H3N2 cases were lower, the HA and NA genes of vaccine and Korean strains were more phylogenetically related to each other. Combined, our results provide indirect support for using phylogenetic clustering patterns of the HA and possibly also the NA genes in the selection of vaccine viruses and the assessment of vaccine effectiveness.
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