Molecular identification and characterization of nonprimate hepaciviruses in equines
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a positive-sense RNA virus belonging to the genus Hepacivirus, family Flaviviridae. Its genome has a length of 9.6 kb and encodes a single polyprotein flanked by two untranslated regions. HCV can cause liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma, and approximately 2% of the world’s population is chronically infected. The investigation of pathogenesis is complicated due to the lack of an animal model. The origin of this virus remains unclear, but in the last few years, relatives of HCV were initially identified in dogs and later in horses, rodents, bats and Old World monkeys. Non-primate hepacivirus (NPHV), which infects dogs and horses, is the closest relative to HCV. We established a pan-reactive “panHepaci”-RT-qPCR assay, which is able to detect human HCV as well as equine NPHV, and additionally, an equine-specific “equHepaci”-RT-qPCR for confirmation of positive results. Serum samples from 1158 clinically inconspicuous horses from Germany and several samples from other mammalian species were screened. We found 2.4% of the horses positive for hepacivirus RNA, and furthermore, the “panHepaci”-RT-qPCR assay also detected a hepacivirus in a donkey from Egypt. This virus had only 78% sequence identity in the E2 gene when compared to other known NPHVs. The established method could be useful for screening purposes, since it is likely that related hepaciviruses also occur in other species.