Experimental infection of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) with West Nile virus isolates of Euro-Mediterranean and North American origins

West Nile virus (WNV) is a zoonotic arboviral pathogen transmitted by mosquitoes in a cycle involving wild birds as reservoir hosts. The virus has recently emerged in North America and re-emerged in Europe.

North American WNV outbreaks are often accompanied by high mortality in wild birds, a feature that is uncommon in Europe. The reason for this difference is unknown, but the intrinsic virulence of the viruses circulating in each continent and/or the susceptibility to the disease of Palearctic as opposed to Nearctic wild bird species could play a role.

To assess this question, experimental inoculations with four lineage 1 WNV strains, three from southern Europe (Italy/2008, Italy/2009 and Spain/2007) and one from North America (NY99) were performed on house sparrows (Passer domesticus), a wild passerine common in both continents. Non-significant differences which ranged from 0% to 25% were observed in mortality for the different WNV strains.

Viremias lasted from 1 to 5-6 days post-inoculation (dpi) in all cases; individuals inoculated with NY99 had significantly higher titres than those inoculated with any of the Euro-Mediterranean strains. Remarkably, host competence was found to be higher for NY99 than for the other strains.

Consequently, albeit being pathogenic for house sparrows, some Euro-Mediterranean strains had reduced capacity for replication in -and transmission from- this host, as compared to the NY99 strain. If applicable also to other wild bird host species, this relatively reduced transmission capacity of the Euro-Mediterranean strains could explain the lower incidence of this disease in wild birds in the Euro-Mediterranean area.

Published on: 2014-03-19

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