Avian influenza virus (AIV) emerged and has continued to re-emerge, continuously posing great threats to animal and human health. The detection of hemagglutination inhibition (HI) or virus neutralization antibodies (NA) is essential for assessing immune protection against AIV. However, the HI/NA-independent immune protection is constantly observed in vaccines’ development against H7N9 subtype AIV and other subtypes in chickens and mammals, necessitating the analysis of the cellular immune response. Here, we established a multi-parameter flow cytometry to examine the innate and adaptive cellular immune responses in chickens after intranasal infection with low pathogenicity H7N9 AIV. This assay allowed us to comprehensively define chicken macrophages, dendritic cells, and their MHC-II expression, NK cells, γδ T cells, B cells, and distinct T cell subsets in steady state and during infection. We found that NK cells and KUL01+ cells significantly increased after H7N9 infection, especially in the lung, and the KUL01+ cells upregulated MHC-II and CD11c expression. Additionally, the percentages and numbers of γδ T cells and CD8 T cells significantly increased and exhibited an activated phenotype with significant upregulation of CD25 expression in the lung but not in the spleen and blood. Furthermore, B cells showed increased in the lung but decreased in the blood and spleen in terms of the percentages or/and numbers, suggesting these cells may be recruited from the periphery after H7N9 infection. Our study firstly disclosed that H7N9 infection induced local and systemic cellular immune responses in chickens, the natural host of AIV, and that the flow cytometric assay developed in this study is useful for analyzing the cellular immune responses to AIVs and other avian infectious diseases and defining the correlates of immune protection.

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