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Comparative quantitative monitoring of rabbit haemorrhagic disease viruses in rabbit kittens

Markus Matthaei13, Peter J Kerr13, Andrew J Read23, Paul Hick23, Stephanie Haboury13, John D Wright13 and Tanja Strive134*

Author Affiliations

1 Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation – Ecosystem Sciences, ACT 2601 Black Mountain, Australia

2 Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute, Woodbridge Rd, 2568 Menangle, NSW, Australia

3 Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, University of Canberra, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia

4 CSIRO – Ecosystem Sciences, GPO Box 1700, Canberra ACT 2600, Australia

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Virology Journal 2014, 11:109  doi:10.1186/1743-422X-11-109

Published: 9 June 2014



Only one strain (the Czech CAPM-v351) of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) has been released in Australia and New Zealand to control pest populations of the European rabbit O. cuniculus. Antigenic variants of RHDV known as RHDVa strains are reportedly replacing RHDV strains in other parts of the world, and Australia is currently investigating the usefulness of RHDVa to complement rabbit biocontrol efforts in Australia and New Zealand. RHDV efficiently kills adult rabbits but not rabbit kittens, which are more resistant to RHD the younger they are and which may carry the virus without signs of disease for prolonged periods. These different infection patterns in young rabbits may significantly influence RHDV epidemiology in the field and hence attempts to control rabbit numbers.


We quantified RHDV replication and shedding in 4–5 week old rabbits using quantitative real time PCR to assess their potential to shape RHDV epidemiology by shedding and transmitting virus. We further compared RHDV-v351 with an antigenic variant strain of RHDVa in kittens that is currently being considered as a potential RHDV strain for future release to improve rabbit biocontrol in Australia.


Kittens were susceptible to infection with virus doses as low as 10 ID50. Virus growth, shedding and transmission after RHDVa infection was found to be comparable or non-significantly lower compared to RHDV. Virus replication and shedding was observed in all kittens infected, but was low in comparison to adult rabbits. Both viruses were shed and transmitted to bystander rabbits. While blood titres indicated that 4–5 week old kittens mostly clear the infection even in the absence of maternal antibodies, virus titres in liver, spleen and mesenteric lymph node were still high on day 5 post infection.


Rabbit kittens are susceptible to infection with very low doses of RHDV, and can transmit virus before they seroconvert. They may therefore play an important role in RHDV field epidemiology, in particular for virus transmission within social groups during virus outbreaks.

RHDVa; Oryctolagus cuniculus; Time course; Resistance; RHD; Invasive species; Biological pest control; Calicivirus