Western Equine Encephalomyelitis: Virulence Markers and Their Epidemiologic Significance

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  • Institute of Virology, Faculty of Medical Science, National University of Cordoba, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnicas (CONICET), OraVax, Inc., Cordoba, Argentina

Comparative studies are described on the virulence of the western equine encephalomyelitis (WEE) complex viruses for mice. Three epizootic WEE virus strains (McMillan, Cba 87, and Cba CIV 180) and five enzootic WEE complex viruses (Highlands J [HJ], Y62-33, Aura, Fort Morgan [FM], and WEE AG80-646) were examined. The neurovirulence and the neuroinvasiveness of these viruses for adult mice were established and correlated with viremia and virus replication in brain tissue. Adult mice inoculated intraperitoneally showed differential responses that corresponded to the epidemiologic attributes of WEE viruses. Viruses associated with equine epizootics were neurovirulent and neuroinvasive, whereas enzootic viruses were neither neuroinvasive nor neurovirulent. In North America, HJ virus appears to be an antigenic link with an intermediate virulence between epizootic WEE virus and the enzootic FM virus. The HJ virus has been associated with rare cases of sporadic equine and human diseases. In South America, no virus with intermediate virulence characteristics has been described. We speculate that epizootics may arise from nonpathogenic strains such as AG80-646 maintained in enzootic transmission cycles.