Powassan virus (POWV) is an encephalitic tick-borne flavivirus which can result in serious neuroinvasive disease with up to a 10% case fatality rate. The study objective was to determine whether the salivary gland extract (SGE) from Ixodes scapularis ticks facilitates the transmission and dissemination of POWV in a process known as saliva-activated transmission. Groups of BALB/c mice were footpad inoculated with either a high dose of POWV with and without SGE or a low dose of POWV with and without SGE. Mice from each group were sacrificed daily. Organ viral loads and gene expression profiles were evaluated by quantitative real-time PCR. Both groups of mice infected with high-dose POWV showed severe neurological signs of disease preceding death. The presence of SGE did not affect POWV transmission or disease outcome for mice infected with the high dose of POWV. Neuroinvasion, paralysis, and death occurred for all mice infected with the low dose of POWV plus SGE; however, for mice infected with the low dose of POWV in the absence of SGE, there were no clinical signs of infection and no mice succumbed to disease. Although this group displayed low-level viremias, all mice were completely healthy, and it was the only group in which POWV was cleared from the lymph nodes. We conclude that saliva-activated transmission occurs in mice infected with a low dose of POWV. Our study is the first to demonstrate virus dose-dependent saliva-activated transmission, warranting further investigation of the specific salivary factors responsible for enhancing POWV transmission.
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