Long-term presence of tick-borne encephalitis virus in experimentally infected bank voles (Myodes glareolus)
Tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) is a vector-borne pathogen that can cause serious neurological symptoms in humans. Across large parts of Eurasia TBEV is found in three traditional subtypes: the European, the Siberian and the Far-eastern subtype. Small mammalian animals play an important role in the transmission cycle as they enable the spread of TBEV among the vector tick population. To assess the impact of TBEV infection on its natural hosts, outbred bank voles (Myodes glareolus) were inoculated with one out of four European TBEV strains. Three of these TBEV strains were recently isolated in Germany. The forth one was the TBEV reference strain Neudörfl. Sampling points at 7, 14, 28, and 56 days post inoculation allowed the characterization of the course of infection. At each time point, six animals per strain were euthanized and eleven organ samples (brain, spine, lung, heart, small and large intestine, liver, spleen, kidney, bladder, sexual organ) as well as whole blood and serum samples were collected. The majority of bank voles (92/96) remained clinically unaffected after the inoculation with TBEV, but still developed a systemic infection during the first week, which transitioned to a viraemia and an infestation of the brain in some animals for the remainder of the first month. Viral RNA was found in whole blood samples of several animals (50/96), but only in a small fraction of the corresponding serum samples (4/50). From the whole blood, virus was successfully reisolated in cell culture until 14 days after inoculation. Less than five percent of all inoculated bank voles (4/96) displayed signs of distress in combination with a rapid weight loss and had to be euthanized prematurely. Overall, the recently isolated TBEV strains showed marked differences, such as a more frequent development of long-term viraemia and a higher detection rate of viral RNA in various organs, in comparison to the reference strain Neudörfl. Overall, our data suggest that the bank vole is a potential amplifying host in the TBEV transmission cycle and appears to be highly adapted to circulating TBEV strains.