Investigation of small mammal-borne viruses with zoonotic potential in South Africa

Ithete, Ndapewa Laudika (2013-12)

Thesis (PhD)-- Stellenbosch University, 2013.


ENGLISH ABSTRACT: The emergence and re-emergence of viral human pathogens from wildlife sources in the recent past has led to increased studies and surveillance of wildlife for potentially zoonotic agents in order to gain a better understanding of the pathogens, their sources as well as events that may lead to viral emergence. Of the >1407 known human pathogens, 13% are classified as emerging or re-emerging, and 58% as zoonotic; 37% of the (re-)emerging and 19% of the zoonotic pathogens are RNA viruses, accounting for the majority of recently emerged infectious diseases with a zoonotic origin, such as HIV, Ebola, Hendra, Nipah, Influenza and SARS. This study focusses on potentially zoonotic viruses hosted by rodents (Muridae family), shrews (order previously known as Insectivora/Soricomorpha, now reclassified as Eulipotyphla) and bats (order Chiroptera). Rodents and bats represent the largest (~40%) and second largest (~25%) mammalian orders and both occur on every continent except Antarctica. Together, the three mammalian orders investigated represent the most relevant potential sources of new zoonoses. In this study I investigated the occurrence of astroviruses, arenaviruses, coronaviruses and hantaviruses in South African small mammal species belonging to the orders mentioned above. These viruses have either been implicated in recent emerging zoonotic events or are considered to have the potential to cause cross-species transmissions resulting in a zoonotic event. In the first part of the study specimens collected from various bat, rodent and shrew species were screened for viral sequences by broadly reactive PCRs; positive samples were characterised by sequencing and sequence analysis. A separate part of the study focussed on hantavirus disease in humans: a seroprevalance survey was conducted to determine the presence of hantavirus antibodies in the local population. Additionally, acutely ill patients with potential hantavirus disease were tested in an attempt to identify possible acute infections and define clinical hantavirus disease in South Africa. Screening of rodent and shrew specimens resulted in the identification of eight novel arenavirus sequences. Seven of the sequences are related to Merino Walk virus, a recently identified South African arenavirus, and the eighth sequence represents a novel lineage of Old World arenaviruses. Screening of bat specimens resulted in the identification of highly diverse novel astrovirus and coronavirus sequences in various South African bat species, including the identification of a viral sequence closely related to the recently emerged Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus. While the study did not identify hantavirus infections in any of the acutely ill patients, it found seroprevalences similar to those observed in Europe and West Africa. The results obtained highlight the importance of small mammals in the emergence of potential zoonoses and further reinforce the importance of viral surveillance of relevant wildlife species. Further in-depth studies of naturally infected reservoir host populations are required in order to gain a better understanding of virus-host dynamics and the events that lead to virus emergence.

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