Antigenic shift is the process by which at least two different strains of a virus, (or different viruses), especially influenza, combine to form a new subtype having a mixture of the surface antigens of the two original strains. The term antigenic shift is more often applied specifically, (but is not limited) to the influenza literature, as it is the best known example (e.g. visna virus in sheep). Antigenetic shift is a specific case of reassortment or viral shift, that refers to a phenotypic change. In terms of virology, the marine ecosystem has been largely unstudied, but due to its extraordinary volume, high viral density (>50 million viruses per mL of ocean water) and high cell lysing rate (as high as 20% on average); marine viruses' antigenic shift and genetic recombination rates must be quite high. This is most striking when one considers that the coevolution of prokaryotes and viruses in the aquatic environment has been going on since before eukaryotes appeared on earth.
Antigenic shift is contrasted with antigenic drift, which is the natural mutation over time of known strains of influenza (or other things, in a more general sense) which may lead to a loss of immunity, or in vaccine mismatch. Antigenic drift occurs in all types of influenza including influenza A, B and C. Antigenic shift, however, occurs only in influenza A because it infects more than just humans. Affected species include other mammals and birds, giving influenza A the opportunity for a major reorganization of surface antigens. Influenza B and C principally infect humans, minimizing the chance to mutate drastically.
Antigenic shift is important as it is a pathway that other viruses may follow to enter a new niche, and so should not be overlooked in the emergence of new viral pathogens. It could occur with primate viruses and may be a factor to consider for the appearance of new viruses in the human species such as HIV.
Flu strains are named after their types of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase surface proteins, so they will be called, for example, H3N2 for type-3 hemagglutinin and type-2 neuraminidase. When two different strains of influenza infect the same cell simultaneously, their protein capsids and lipid envelopes are removed, exposing their RNA, which is then transcribed to mRNA. The host cell then forms new viruses that combine their antigens; for example, H3N2 and H5N1 can form H5N2 this way. Because the human immune system has difficulty recognizing the new influenza strain, it may be highly dangerous. Influenza viruses which have undergone antigenic shift have caused the Asian Flu pandemic of 1957, the Hong Kong Flu pandemic of 1968, and the Swine Flu scare of 1976. Until recently, such combinations were believed to have caused the infamous Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 which killed 40~100 million people worldwide; however more recent research suggests the 1918 pandemic was caused by the antigenic drift of a fully avian virus to a form that could infect humans efficiently. One increasingly worrying situation is the possible antigenic shift between avian influenza and human influenza. This antigenic shift could cause the formation of a highly virulent virus.
There are 16 different hemagglutinin subtypes and 9 different neuraminidase subtypes, all of which have been found among influenza A viruses in wild birds. Wild birds are the primary natural reservoir for all subtypes of influenza A viruses and are thought to be the source of influenza A viruses in all other animals. Most influenza viruses cause asymptomatic or mild infection in birds; however, the range of symptoms in birds varies greatly depending on the strain of virus. Infection with certain avian influenza A viruses (for example, some strains of H5 and H7 viruses) can cause widespread disease and death among some species of wild and especially domestic birds such as chickens and turkeys.
Pigs can be infected with both human and avian influenza viruses in addition to swine influenza viruses. Infected pigs get symptoms similar to humans, such as cough, fever, and runny nose. Because pigs are susceptible to avian, human and swine influenza viruses, they potentially may be infected with influenza viruses from different species (e.g., ducks and humans) at the same time. If this happens, it is possible for the genes of these viruses to mix and create a new virus.
For example, if a pig were infected with a human influenza virus and an avian influenza virus at the same time, an antigenic shift could occur, producing a new virus that had most of the genes from the human virus, but a hemagglutinin or neuraminidase from the avian virus. The resulting new virus would likely be able to infect humans and spread from person to person, but it would have surface proteins (hemagglutinin and/or neuraminidase) not previously seen in influenza viruses that infect humans, and therefore to which most people have little or no immune protection. If this new virus causes illness in people and can be transmitted easily from person to person, an influenza pandemic can occur.