Influenza A viruses cause seasonal and pandemic outbreaks that range from mild infections to the disastrous Spanish Flu. Resistance to neuraminidase inhibitors (NAIs) is a growing problem as these drugs constitute a vital part of treatment strategies and pandemic preparedness plans worldwide. Oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) is the mostly used NAI. Its active metabolite, oseltamivir carboxylate (OC), is excreted from treated patients and degrades poorly in sewage treatment plants and surface water. Thus, OC can enter aquatic environments where the natural influenza reservoir, dabbling ducks, can be exposed to the substance and resistance could develop. If NAI resistance is established in influenza viruses circulating among wild birds, the resistance can form part of a virus re-entering the human population either by reassortment or by direct transmission.
In this thesis, evidence is presented that OC is present in the waterways during a seasonal influenza outbreak in Japan, a country in which oseltamivir is liberally used. Furthermore, when mallards were infected with an influenza A/H1N1 virus and subjected to low, environmental-like concentrations of OC, resistance developed through acquisition of the well-known resistance mutation H274Y. The influenza infection in the mallards was mainly intestinal, had a rapid onset and was progressing in a longitudinal fashion in the intestine. Finally, influenza A viruses isolated from wild mallards in Sweden and containing resistance-related mutations were examined by a neuraminidase inhibition assay. The viruses did not have a decreased sensitivity to NAIs, but had mutations with a resistance-enhancing potential.
Thus, OC is present in the environment and environmental-like concentrations of OC induce resistance in influenza viruses of dabbling ducks. The present resistance situation among wild birds is not well understood but the existence of H274Y among wild birds, though rare, and the spread of the former seasonal A/H1N1 virus containing H274Y among humans indicate that resistance mutations could establish themselves also among wild birds. An oseltamivir-resistant pandemic or a human-adapted highly-pathogenic avian influenza virus are frightening scenarios as oseltamivir is a cornerstone in the defense in those situations. There is a need for further studies, surveillance in wild birds and for a prudent use of antivirals.