Rift Valley fever phlebovirus (RVFV) is an arthropod-borne virus that can cause severe disease in ruminants and humans. Epidemics occur mainly after heavy rainfall, which leads to a significant increase in the occurrence of RVFV-transmitting mosquitoes. During inter-epidemic periods, the virus is assumed to be maintained between mosquitoes, susceptible livestock and yet unknown wildlife. The widespread rodent Rattus rattus (black rat) has been suspected to be involved in RVFV maintenance. In order to elucidate its susceptibility and thus its possible role in the transmission cycle of the virus, an experimental infection study was performed. Black rats were subcutaneously infected with highly virulent RVFV strain 35/74 and euthanized on days 3, 14 and 28 post-infection. Additional black rats served as non-infected contact animals. The infected black rats showed high susceptibility to RVFV infection. Generation of RVFV-neutralizing antibodies was found, and the rats developed viraemias lasting up to 17 days. Viral RNA was found in tissues until the last day of the experiment. However, neither a clinical manifestation nor virus-induced histopathological lesions were observed in any rat. These findings indicate the persistence of RVFV in black rats without affecting the animals. In contact animals, no evidence of horizontal RVFV transmission was found, although the co-housed infected rats showed oral, rectal and conjunctival RVFV shedding. Results of this study point to an involvement of black rats in the RVFV transmission cycle, and further studies are needed to investigate their potential role in the maintenance of the virus.
The authors would like to thank Kristin Vorpahl, Silvia Schuparis, Martina Abs and Birke Böttcher for their excellent technical assistance. We want to thank Markus Keller, Rainer Ulrich and Dania Richter for sharing their expertise on rats. Many thanks to Jana Schulz, Andreas Fröhlich and Susanne Amler for statistical analyses and to Dirk Höper for NGS. Finally, we would like to thank the animal caretakers for their support during the experiment. The authors are very grateful for the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, grant number: GR 980/4-1) funding for this study.