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The Re-Emergence of H1N1 Influenza Virus in 1977: A Cautionary Tale for Estimating Divergence Times Using Biologically Unrealistic Sampling Dates

Public Library of Science
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0011184
  • Research Article
  • Evolutionary Biology/Microbial Evolution And Genomics
  • Virology/Emerging Viral Diseases
  • Virology/Virus Evolution And Symbiosis
  • Biology


In 1977, H1N1 influenza A virus reappeared after a 20-year absence. Genetic analysis indicated that this strain was missing decades of nucleotide sequence evolution, suggesting an accidental release of a frozen laboratory strain into the general population. Recently, this strain and its descendants were included in an analysis attempting to date the origin of pandemic influenza virus without accounting for the missing decades of evolution. Here, we investigated the effect of using viral isolates with biologically unrealistic sampling dates on estimates of divergence dates. Not accounting for missing sequence evolution produced biased results and increased the variance of date estimates of the most recent common ancestor of the re-emergent lineages and across the entire phylogeny. Reanalysis of the H1N1 sequences excluding isolates with unrealistic sampling dates indicates that the 1977 re-emergent lineage was circulating for approximately one year before detection, making it difficult to determine the geographic source of reintroduction. We suggest that a new method is needed to account for viral isolates with unrealistic sampling dates.

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