Tick-borne encephalitis is the most important tick-transmitted zoonotic virus infection in Eurasia, causing severe neurological symptoms in humans. The causative agent, the tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV), circulates between ticks and a variety of mammalian hosts. To study the interaction between TBEV and one of its suspected reservoir hosts, bank voles of the Western evolutionary lineage were inoculated subcutaneously with either one of eight TBEV strains or the related attenuated Langat virus, and were euthanized after 28 days. In addition, a subset of four strains was characterized in bank voles of the Carpathian linage. Six bank voles were inoculated per strain, and were housed together in groups of three with one uninfected in-contact animal each. Generally, most bank voles did not show any clinical signs over the course of infection. However, one infected bank vole died and three had to be euthanized prematurely, all of which had been inoculated with the identical TBEV strain (Battaune 17-H9, isolated in 2017 in Germany from a bank vole). All inoculated animals seroconverted, while none of the in-contact animals did. Viral RNA was detected via real-time RT-PCR in the whole blood samples of 31 out of 74 inoculated and surviving bank voles. The corresponding serum sample remained PCR-negative in nearly all cases (29/31). In addition, brain and/or spine samples tested positive in 11 cases, mostly correlating with a positive whole blood sample. Our findings suggest a good adaption of TBEV to bank voles, combining in most cases a low virulence phenotype with detectable virus replication and hinting at a reservoir host function of bank voles for TBEV.
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