Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR) is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus of the Morbillivirus
genus. The current PPR eradication effort relies mainly on the implementation of massive vaccination campaigns. One of the most widely used PPR vaccines is the Nigeria 75/1 strain obtained after attenuation by 75 serial passages of the wild type isolate in cell cultures. Here we use high throughput deep sequencing of the historical passages that led to the Nigeria 75/1 attenuated strain to understand the evolution of PPRV attenuation and to assess the risk of reversal in different cell types. Comparison of the consensus sequences of the wild type and vaccine strains showed that only 18 fixed mutations separate the two strains. At the earliest attenuation passage at our disposal (passage 47), 12 out of the 18 mutations were already present at a frequency of 100%. Low-frequency variants were identified along the genome in all passages. Sequencing of passages after the vaccine strain showed evidence of genetic drift during cell passages, especially in cells expressing the SLAM receptor targeted by PPRV. However, 15 out of the 18 mutations related to attenuation remained fixed in the population. In vitro experiments suggest that one mutation in the leader region of the PPRV genome affects virus replication. Our results suggest that only a few mutations can have a serious impact on the pathogenicity of PPRV. Risk of reversion to virulence of the attenuated PPRV strain Nigeria 75/1 during serial passages in cell cultures seems low but limiting the number of passages during vaccine production is recommended.
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