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Introduction and spread of variegated squirrel bornavirus 1 (VSBV-1) between exotic squirrels and spill-over infections to humans in Germany

The variegated squirrel bornavirus 1 (VSBV-1) is a recently discovered emerging viral pathogen which causes severe and eventually fatal encephalitis in humans after contact to exotic squirrels in private holdings and zoological gardens. Understanding the VSBV-1 epidemiology is crucial to develop, implement and maintain surveillance strategies for detection and control of animal and human infections. Based on a newly detected human encephalitis case in a zoological garden, epidemiological squirrel trade investigations and molecular phylogeny analyses of VSBV-1 with temporal and spatial resolution were conducted. Phylogenetic analyses indicated a recent emergence of VSBV-1 in European squirrel holdings and several animal-animal and animal-human spill-over infections. Virus phylogeny linked to squirrel trade analysis showed the introduction of a common ancestor of the known current VSBV-1 isolates into captive exotic squirrels in Germany, most likely by Prevost’s squirrels (Callosciurus prevostii). The links of the animal trade between private breeders and zoos, the likely introduction pathway of VSBV-1 into Germany, and the role of a primary animal distributor were elucidated. In addition, a seroprevalence study was performed among zoo animal caretakers from VSBV-1 affected zoos. No seropositive healthy zoo animal caretakers were found, underlining a probable high-case fatality rate of human VSBV-1 infections. This study illustrates the network and health consequences of uncontrolled wild pet trading as well as the benefits of molecular epidemiology for elucidation and future prevention of infection chains by zoonotic viruses. To respond to emerging zoonotic diseases rapidly, improved regulation and control strategies are urgently needed.

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