Unravelling the evolutionary relationships of hepaciviruses within and across rodent hosts
Benjamin Dudu Akaibe,
Sylvestre Gambalemoke Mbalitini,
Frederik Van de Perre,
Natalie Van Houtte,
Marc Van Ranst,
Jan Felix Drexler,
Joelle Gouy de Bellocq,
Posted 09 Oct 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.10.09.332932
Posted 09 Oct 2020
Hepatitis C virus (HCV; genus Hepacivirus) represents a major public health problem, infecting about 3 % of the human population (± 185,000,000 people). Because no plausible animal reservoir carrying closely related hepaciviruses has been identified, the zoonotic origins of HCV still remain elusive. Motivated by recent findings of divergent hepaciviruses in rodents and a plausible African origin of HCV genotypes, we have screened a comprehensive collection of small mammals samples from seven sub-Saharan African countries. Out of 4,303 samples screened, 80 were found positive for the presence of hepaciviruses in 29 different host species. We here report 56 novel genomes that considerably increase the diversity of three divergent rodent hepacivirus lineages, which previously were almost exclusively represented by New World and European hepaciviruses. Furthermore, we provide undisputable evidence for hepacivirus co-infections in rodents, which remarkably, we exclusively but repeatedly found in four sampled species of brush-furred mice. We also point at hepacivirus co-infections indirectly in different animal hosts by demonstrating evidence for recombination within specific host lineages. Our study considerably expands the available hepacivirus genomic data and elucidates the relatively deep evolutionary history that these pathogens have in rodents compared to other mammalian hosts. Overall, our results emphasize the importance of rodents as a potential hepacivirus reservoir and as models for investigating HCV infection dynamics. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest.
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