Background: During the 2009 pandemic of an emerging influenza A virus (IAV; H1N1pdm09), data from several European countries indicated that the spread of the virus might have been interrupted by the annual autumn rhinovirus epidemic. We aimed to investigate viral interference between rhinovirus and IAV with use of clinical data and an experimental model.
Methods: We did a clinical data analysis and experimental infection study to investigate the co-occurrence of rhinovirus and IAV in respiratory specimens from adults (≥21 years) tested with a multiplex PCR panel at Yale-New Haven Hospital (CT, USA) over three consecutive winter seasons (Nov 1 to March 1, 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19). We compared observed versus expected co-detections using data extracted from the Epic Systems electronic medical record system. To assess how rhinovirus infection affects subsequent IAV infection, we inoculated differentiated primary human airway epithelial cultures with rhinovirus (HRV-01A; multiplicity of infection [MOI] 0·1) or did mock infection. On day 3 post-infection, we inoculated the same cultures with IAV (H1N1 green fluorescent protein [GFP] reporter virus or H1N1pdm09; MOI 0·1). We used reverse transcription quantitative PCR or microscopy to quantify host cell mRNAs for interferon-stimulated genes (ISGs) on day 3 after rhinovirus or mock infection and IAV RNA on days 4, 5, or 6 after rhinovirus or mock infection. We also did sequential infection studies in the presence of BX795 (6 μM), to inhibit the interferon response. We compared ISG expression and IAV RNA and expression of GFP by IAV reporter virus.
Findings: Between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2019, examination of 8284 respiratory samples positive for either rhinovirus (n=3821) or IAV (n=4463) by any test method was used to establish Nov 1 to March 1 as the period of peak virus co-circulation. After filtering for samples within this time frame meeting the inclusion criteria (n=13 707), there were 989 (7·2%) rhinovirus and 922 (6·7%) IAV detections, with a significantly lower than expected odds of co-detection (odds ratio 0·16, 95% CI 0·09-0·28). Rhinovirus infection of cell cultures induced ISG expression and protected against IAV infection 3 days later, resulting in an approximate 50 000-fold decrease in IAV H1N1pdm09 viral RNA on day 5 post-rhinovirus inoculation. Blocking the interferon response restored IAV replication following rhinovirus infection.
Interpretation: These findings show that one respiratory virus can block infection with another through stimulation of antiviral defences in the airway mucosa, supporting the idea that interference from rhinovirus disrupted the 2009 IAV pandemic in Europe. These results indicate that viral interference can potentially affect the course of an epidemic, and this possibility should be considered when designing interventions for seasonal influenza epidemics and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.