Reconstructing the origin and transmission dynamics of the 1967-68 foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in the United Kingdom

A large epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) occurred in the United Kingdom (UK) over a seven month period in Northwest England from late 1967 to the summer of 1968. This was preceded by a number of smaller FMD outbreaks in the country, two in 1967, in Hampshire and Warwickshire and one in Northumberland during 1966. The causative agent of all four events was identified as FMD virus (FMDV) serotype O and the source of the large epidemic was attributed to infected bone marrow in lamb products imported from Argentina. However, the diagnostic tools available at the time were unable to entirely rule out connections with the earlier UK FMD outbreaks, as well as other potential sources from Europe. The aim of this study was to apply molecular sequencing to investigate the likely source of this epidemic using VP1 region and full genome (FG) sequences determined directly from clinical epithelium samples (n = 13) or cell culture isolates (n = 6), from this and contemporary outbreaks in the UK, Europe and South America. Analysis of the VP1 sequences provided evidence for at least three separate incursions of FMDV into the UK including one independent introduction that was responsible for the main 1967/68 epidemic. Analysis of FG sequences from the main 1967/68 outbreak (n = 10) revealed nucleotide substitutions at 94 genomic sites providing evidence for the linear accumulation of nucleotide substitutions (rate = 2.42 x 10(-5) nt substitutions/site/day). However, there were five samples where this linear relationship was absent, indicating evolutional dormancy of the virus, presumably outside a host. These results help define the evolutionary dynamics of FMDV during an epidemic and contribute to the knowledge and understanding from which to base future outbreak control strategies.

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