Evidence of reduced viremia, pathogenicity and vector competence in a re-emerging European strain of bluetongue virus serotype 8 in sheep

The outbreak of bluetongue virus (BTV) serotype 8 (BTV-8) during 2006-2009 in Europe was the most costly epidemic of the virus in recorded history. In 2015, a BTV-8 strain re-emerged in France which has continued to circulate since then. To examine anecdotal reports of reduced pathogenicity and transmission efficiency, we investigated the infection kinetics of a 2007 UK BTV-8 strain alongside the re-emerging BTV-8 strain isolated from France in 2017. Two groups of eight BTV-naïve British mule sheep were inoculated with 5.75 log10TCID50 ml?1 of either BTV-8 strain. BTV RNA was detected by 2 dpi in both groups with peak viremia occurring between 5-9 dpi. A significantly greater amount of BTV RNA was detected in sheep infected with the 2007 strain (6.0-8.8 log10 genome copies mL-1) than the re-emerging BTV-8 strain (2.9-7.9 log10 genome copies mL?1). All infected sheep developed BTV-specific antibodies by 9 dpi. BTV was isolated from 2 dpi to 12 dpi for 2007 BTV-8-inoculated sheep and from 5 to 10 dpi for sheep inoculated with the remerging BTV-8. In Culicoides sonorensis feeding on the sheep over the period 7-12 dpi, vector competence was significantly higher for the 2007 strain than the re-emerging strain. Both the proportion of animals showing moderate (as opposed to mild or no) clinical disease (6/8 vs 1/8) and the overall clinical scores (median 5.25 vs 3) were significantly higher in sheep infected with the 2007 strain, compared to those infected with the re-emerging strain. However, one sheep infected with the re-emerging strain was euthanized at 16 dpi having developed severe lameness. This highlights the potential of the re-emerging BTV-8 to still cause illness in naïve ruminants with concurrent costs to the livestock industry.

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