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Powassan virus (POWV) is a tick-borne virus maintained in sylvatic cycles between mammalian wildlife hosts and ticks (primarily Ixodes spp.). There are two currently recognized lineages, POWV-lineage 1 (POWV-L1) and deer tick virus (DTV; lineage 2), both of which can cause fatal neurologic disease in humans. Increased numbers of human case reports in the northeastern and north central United States in recent years have fueled questions into POWV epidemiology. We inoculated three candidate wildlife POWV reservoir hosts, groundhogs (Marmota monax), striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), and fox squirrels (Sciurus niger), with either POWV-L1 or DTV. Resulting viremia, tissue tropism, and pathology were minimal in most inoculated individuals of all three species, with low (peak titer range, 101.7–103.3 plaque-forming units/mL serum) or undetectable viremia titers, lack of detection in tissues except for low titers in spleen, and seroconversion in most individuals by 21 days postinoculation (DPI). Pathology was limited and most commonly consisted of mild inflammation in the brain of POWV-L1– and DTV-inoculated skunks on four and 21 DPI, respectively. These results reveal variation in virulence and host competence among wild mammalian species, and a likely limited duration of host infectiousness to ticks during enzootic transmission cycles. However, POWV can transmit rapidly from tick to host, and tick co-feeding may be an additional transmission mechanism. The rare and low-level detections of viremia in these three, common, wild mammal species suggest that vector–host dynamics should continue to be explored, along with eco-epidemiological aspects of enzootic POWV transmission in different regions and virus lineages.
Financial support: This research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada 2015-04088, Colorado State University Animal Modules Core 21-21500, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal, and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Authors’ addresses: Nicole M. Nemeth, Department of Population Health, Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, and Department of Pathology, Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, E-mail: email@example.com. J. Jeffrey Root, United States Department of Agriculture/APHIS, National Wildlife Research Center, Fort Collins, CO, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Airn E. Hartwig, Richard A. Bowen, and Angela M. Bosco-Lauth, Department of Biomedical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, E-mails: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.