An important question pertaining to the natural history of Venezuelan equine encephalitis (VEE) virus concerns the source of epizootic, equine-virulent strains. An endemic source of epizootic virus has not been identified, despite intensive surveillance. One of the theories of epizootic strain origin is that epizootic VEE viruses evolve from enzootic strains. Likely enzootic sources of VEE virus occur in Colombia and Venezuela where many of the epizootic outbreaks of VEE have occurred. We have determined the nucleotide sequences of the entire genomes of epizootic VEE subtype I-C virus, strain P676, isolated in Venezuela, and of enzootic VEE subtype I-D virus, strain 3880, isolated in Panama. VEE subtype I-D viruses are maintained in enzootic foci in Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela. The genomes of P676 and 3880 viruses differ from that of VEE subtype I-AB virus, strain Trinidad donkey (TRD), by 417 (3.6%) and 619 (5.4%) nucleotides, respectively. The translated regions of P676 and 3880 genomes differ from those of TRD virus by 54 (1.4%) and 66 (1.8%) amino acids, respectively. This study and the oligonucleotide fingerprint analyses of South American I-C and I-D viruses (Rico-Hesse, Roehrig, Trent, and Dickerman, 1988, Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg. 38,187-194) provide the most conclusive evidence to date suggesting that equine-virulent strains of VEE virus arise naturally from minor variants present in populations of I-D VEE virus maintained in enzootic foci in northern South America.
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