Millions of domestic and wild European rabbits (Oryctologus cuniculus) have died in Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand during the past 17 years following infection by Rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV). This highly contagious and deadly disease was first identified in China in 1984. Epidemics of RHDV then radiated across Europe until the virus apparently appeared in Britain in 1992. However, this concept of radiation of a new and virulent virus from China is not entirely consistent with serological and molecular evidence. This study shows, using RT-PCR and nucleotide sequencing of RNA obtained from the serum of healthy rabbits stored at 4 °C for nearly 50 years, that, contrary to previous opinions, RHDV circulated as an apparently avirulent virus throughout Britain more than 50 years ago and more than 30 years before the disease itself was identified. Based on molecular phylogenetic analysis of British and European RHDV sequences, it is concluded that RHDV has almost certainly circulated harmlessly in Britain and Europe for centuries rather than decades. Moreover, analysis of partial capsid sequences did not reveal significant differences between RHDV isolates that came from either healthy rabbits or animals that had died with typical haemorrhagic disease. The high stability of RHDV RNA is also demonstrated by showing that it can be amplified and sequenced from rabbit bone marrow samples collected at least 7 weeks after the animal has died.
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