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First Evidence of West Nile Virus Overwintering in Mosquitoes in Germany

Mosquitoes collected from mid-December 2020 to early March 2021 from hibernacula in northeastern Germany, a region of West Nile virus (WNV) activity since 2018, were examined for WNV-RNA. Among the 6101 mosquitoes tested in 722 pools of up to 12 specimens, one pool of 10 Culex pipiens complex mosquitoes collected in early March 2021 in the cellar of a medieval castle in Rosslau, federal state of Saxony-Anhalt, tested positive. Subsequent mosquito DNA analysis produced Culex pipiens biotype pipiens. The pool homogenate remaining after nucleic acid extraction failed to grow the virus on Vero and C6/36 cells. Sequencing of the viral NS2B-NS3 coding region, however, demonstrated high homology with virus strains previously collected in Germany, e.g., from humans, birds, and mosquitoes, which have been designated the East German WNV clade. The finding confirms the expectation that WNV can overwinter in mosquitoes in Germany, facilitating an early start to the natural transmission season in the subsequent year. On the other hand, the calculated low infection prevalence of 0.016–0.20%, depending on whether one or twelve of the mosquitoes in the positive pool was/were infected, indicates a slow epidemic progress and mirrors the still-hypoendemic situation in Germany. In any case, local overwintering of the virus in mosquitoes suggests its long-term persistence and an enduring public health issue.

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