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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Florida Researchers Discover New Virus in Ticks

University of Florida researchers have discovered that a tick common to the southeastern United States may harbor an unusual virus that belongs to the family Arenaviridae. Some arenaviruses are associated with severe hemorrhagic disease and significant mortality in people in South America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Known as Tacaribe virus, the virus discovered in ticks has never before been found in an animal or human species in the United States, report scientists from the UF colleges of Veterinary Medicine and Public Health and Health Professions in a study that appeared in the journal PLOS ONE in December. The researchers found evidence of the virus in nearly 10 percent of ticks collected and they cultured the virus from ticks trapped in North Central Florida.

Although Tacaribe virus is not known to cause human infections, the association that other viruses in the arenavirus family have with human illness, its relative rarity and unknown host in nature intrigue the study’s authors.

“This finding is exciting because it expands the range in which these viruses might be circulating in the environment,” said Dr. Katherine Sayler, who completed her doctoral degree from the UF veterinary college in December and is the study’s lead author. “It also raises some really interesting questions about human risk.”

Collaborators in the study include Sayler’s mentors Dr. Anthony Barbet, a professor in the veterinary college’s department of infectious diseases and pathology, and Dr. John Lednicky, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of environmental and global health, along with Dr. William Clapp, a professor of pathology in the UF College of Medicine’s department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine.

One of 29 distinct mammalian viruses that are part of the arenavirus family, Tacaribe virus was last isolated in bats during a rabies surveillance survey conducted in Trinidad in the late 1950s. Only one sample of Tacaribe virus from that survey remains, and molecular testing confirmed that the new tick-derived viral specimen was nearly identical genetically to that remaining sample, the study states.

“We never thought we would find an arenavirus in a tick,” Dr. Sayler said. “These types of viruses are usually transmitted by rodents.”

Although Tacaribe virus had previously been found in bats, recent studies indicate that bats are not the natural reservoir host, and efforts to find the virus in other mammals have failed.

“We still don’t know which animal is the natural host of this virus, and whether ticks have harbored the virus for a long time, or if this is something new,” Dr. Sayler said. “Without knowing if local rodents are a major reservoir of the virus, the extent that Floridians are sickened by the virus, and whether ticks can transmit the virus to humans, it makes it hard for us to know if and when there would be an outbreak. Clearly, much more work must be done.”

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