The recent emergence of swine-origin H1N1 influenza A virus (pandemic H1N1/09) in humans has heightened awareness of how the burden of morbidity and mortality due to influenza is associated with the appearance of new genetic variants (5
) and of the genetic and epidemiological determinants of viral transmission (8
). The emergence of pandemic H1N1/09 is also unprecedented in recorded history as it means that three antigenically distinct lineages of influenza A virus—pandemic H1N1/09 and the seasonal H1N1 and H3N2 viruses— currently cocirculate within human populations.
Although the presence of multiple subtypes of influenza A virus may place an additional burden on public health resources, it also provides a unique opportunity to compare the patterns and dynamics of evolution in these viruses on a similar time scale. Indeed, one of the most interesting secondary effects of the current H1N1/09 pandemic has been an increased vigilance for cases of influenza-like illness and hence an intensified sampling of seasonal H1N1 and H3N2 viruses during the typical influenza “off-season” (i.e., spring-summer) in the northern hemisphere. Because the influenza season in the northern hemisphere generally runs from November through March, with a usual peak in January or February, influenza viruses sampled outside of this period are of special interest.
The current model for the global spatiotemporal dynamics of influenza A virus is that the northern and southern hemispheres represent ecological “sinks” for this virus, with little ongoing viral transmission during the summer months (9
). In contrast, more continual viral transmission occurs within the tropical “source” population (13
) that is most likely centered on an intense transmission network in east and southeast Asia (10
). However, the precise epidemiological and evolutionary reasons for this major geographic division, and for the seasonality of influenza A virus in general, remain uncertain (1
). Evidence for this “sink-source” ecological model is that viruses sampled from successive seasons in localities such as New York State do not usually form linked clusters on phylogenetic trees, indicating that they are not connected by direct transmission through the summer months (7
). Similar conclusions can be drawn for the United States as a whole and point to multiple introductions of phylogenetically distinct lineages during the winter (6
), followed by complex patterns of spatial diffusion (14
). However, despite the growing epidemiological and phylogenetic data supporting this model, it is also evident that there is relatively little sequence data from seasonal influenza viruses that are sampled from April to October in the northern hemisphere. Hence, it is uncertain whether extended chains of transmission can occur during this time period, even though this may have an important bearing on our understanding of influenza seasonality.
To address these issues, we examined the evolutionary behavior of seasonal H1N1 and H3N2 viruses as they cocirculated during a single time period—(late) April to June 2009—within a single locality (New York State). Not only are levels of influenza virus transmission in the northern hemisphere usually very low during this time period, but in this particular season the human host population was also experiencing the emerging epidemic of pandemic H1N1/09.