Industry-wide surveillance of Marek's disease virus on commercial poultry farms

Marek's disease virus is a herpesvirus of chickens that costs the worldwide poultry industry more than US$1 billion annually. Two generations of Marek's disease vaccines have shown reduced efficacy over the last half century due to evolution of the virus. Understanding where the virus is present may give insight into whether continued reductions in efficacy are likely. We conducted a 3-yr surveillance study to assess the prevalence of Marek's disease virus on commercial poultry farms, determine the effect of various factors on virus prevalence, and document virus dynamics in broiler chicken houses over short (weeks) and long (years) timescales. We extracted DNA from dust samples collected from commercial chicken and egg production facilities in Pennsylvania, USA. Quantitative PCR was used to assess wild-type virus detectability and concentration. Using data from 1018 dust samples with Bayesian generalized linear mixed effects models, we determined the factors that correlated with virus prevalence across farms. Maximum likelihood and autocorrelation function estimation on 3727 additional dust samples were used to document and characterize virus concentrations within houses over time. Overall, wild-type virus was detectable at least once on 36 of 104 farms at rates that varied substantially between farms. Virus was detected in one of three broiler-breeder operations (companies), four of five broiler operations, and three of five egg layer operations. Marek's disease virus detectability differed by production type, bird age, day of the year, operation (company), farm, house, flock, and sample. Operation (company) was the most important factor, accounting for between 12% and 63.4% of the variation in virus detectability. Within individual houses, virus concentration often dropped below detectable levels and reemerged later. These data characterize Marek's disease virus dynamics, which are potentially important to the evolution of the virus.

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