Molecular detection and characterisation of the first Japanese encephalitis virus belonging to genotype IV acquired in Australia

Chisha Sikazwe, Matthew J. Neave, Alice Michie, Patrick Mileto, Jianning Wang, Natalie Cooper, Avram Levy, Allison Imrie, Robert W. Baird, Bart J. Currie, David Speers, John S. Mackenzie, David W. Smith, David T. Williams

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BACKGROUND: A fatal case of Japanese encephalitis (JE) occurred in a resident of the Tiwi Islands, in the Northern Territory of Australia in February 2021, preceding the large JE outbreak in south-eastern Australia in 2022. This study reports the detection, whole genome sequencing and analysis of the virus responsible (designated JEV/Australia/NT_Tiwi Islands/2021). METHODS: Reverse transcription quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR) testing was performed on post-mortem brain specimens using a range of JE virus (JEV)-specific assays. Virus isolation from brain specimens was attempted by inoculation of mosquito and mammalian cells or embryonated chicken eggs. Whole genome sequencing was undertaken using a combination of Illumina next generation sequencing methodologies, including a tiling amplicon approach. Phylogenetic and selection analyses were performed using alignments of the Tiwi Islands JEV genome and envelope (E) protein gene sequences and publicly available JEV sequences. RESULTS: Virus isolation was unsuccessful and JEV RNA was detected only by RT-qPCR assays capable of detecting all JEV genotypes. Phylogenetic analysis revealed that the Tiwi Islands strain is a divergent member of genotype IV (GIV) and is closely related to the 2022 Australian outbreak virus (99.8% nucleotide identity). The Australian strains share highest levels of nucleotide identity with Indonesian viruses from 2017 and 2019 (96.7-96.8%). The most recent common ancestor of this Australian-Indonesian clade was estimated to have emerged in 2007 (95% HPD range: 1998-2014). Positive selection was detected using two methods (MEME and FEL) at several sites in the E and non-structural protein genes, including a single site in the E protein (S194N) unique to the Australian GIV strains. CONCLUSION: This case represents the first detection of GIV JEV acquired in Australia, and only the second confirmed fatal human infection with a GIV JEV strain. The close phylogenetic relationship between the Tiwi Islands strain and recent Indonesian viruses is indicative of the origin of this novel GIV lineage, which we estimate has circulated in the region for several years prior to the Tiwi Islands case.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0010754
Pages (from-to)e0010754
JournalPLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2022


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