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article imageDeadly new virus discovered — Jumped from squirrels to humans

By Karen Graham     Jul 9, 2015 in Science
The deaths of three people in Germany, all of them breeders of variegated squirrels for the pet trade, has researchers wondering if maybe they contracted a new strain of virus from squirrels.
The new strain of virus belongs to a group of viruses called bornaviruses. They were first described in the 18th century and named after the town of Borna, near Leipzig, Germany. The disease was described in 1885 among military horses that were coming down with a fatal neurological disease.
The Borna disease virus (BDV) can infect a vast array of animals, including dogs, cattle, cats, rats and many other vertebrates. For years, researchers debated if the virus could infect humans. Then, in 2000 in Austria, BDV was isolated from a horse that was euthanized because of an incurable neurological disease.
Scientists discovered a new subtype of the BDV, 15 percent different than their reference strains. It was then researchers realized the genome of BDV was far more variable than previously thought, and many subtypes of the virus could escape detection with assays being currently used.
After studying the cases of the three men who had died, the findings suggest the viruses do cause disease in humans, and raises the question of whether this virus "represents an emerging threat" to people in the area, according to a recent statement from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
The three squirrel breeders were all men in their 60s and 70s. The men were also good friends who met frequently to discuss their hobby. All three were breeding variegated squirrels, native to Central America. The men died between 2011 and 2013 from an inflammation of the brain.
Two of the men had admitted to being scratched or bitten by the squirrels. They all died a few months after first showing symptoms, which included fever and weakness. One of the variegated squirrel carcasses was examined. and Genetic analysis produced sequences of a newly identified type of bornavirus.
Further molecular and immunohistochemical analysis of brain tissue samples from the three deceased men confirmed the presence of the same new virus. It was decided the new virus was clearly different from the BDV. Further testing of other breeder's squirrels and squirrels in zoos has not turned up any signs of the new virus.
A study was done and published in the New England Journal of Medicine on July 9, 2015, that confirmed fully the new viral subtype, tentatively named variegated squirrel 1 bornavirus (VSBV-1). The problem with this virus is that it is not detectable with the usual testing methods, and more detailed genetic testing is required. But needless to say, "feeding or direct contact with living or dead variegated squirrels should be avoided as a precautionary measure," the ECDC has said.
More about bornavirus, Encephalitis, VSBV1, Central america, variegated squirrels
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