Open Access Open Badges Research

Characterization of small ruminant lentivirus A4 subtype isolates and assessment of their pathogenic potential in naturally infected goats

Martina Deubelbeiss1, Laure Blatti-Cardinaux1, Marie-Luise Zahno1, Reto Zanoni1, Hans-Rudolf Vogt1, Horst Posthaus2 and Giuseppe Bertoni1*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Virology and Immunology, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

2 Institute of Animal Pathology, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

For all author emails, please log on.

Virology Journal 2014, 11:65  doi:10.1186/1743-422X-11-65

Published: 3 April 2014



Small ruminant lentiviruses escaping efficient serological detection are still circulating in Swiss goats in spite of a long eradication campaign that essentially eliminated clinical cases of caprine arthritis encephalitis in the country. This strongly suggests that the circulating viruses are avirulent for goats.

To test this hypothesis, we isolated circulating viruses from naturally infected animals and tested the in vitro and in vivo characteristics of these field isolates.


Viruses were isolated from primary macrophage cultures. The presence of lentiviruses in the culture supernatants was monitored by reverse transcriptase assay. Isolates were passaged in different cells and their cytopathogenic effects monitored by microscopy. Proviral load was quantified by real-time PCR using customized primer and probes. Statistical analysis comprised Analysis of Variance and Bonferroni Multiple Comparison Test.


The isolated viruses belonged to the small ruminant lentiviruses A4 subtype that appears to be prominent in Switzerland. The 4 isolates replicated very efficiently in macrophages, displaying heterogeneous phenotypes, with two isolates showing a pronounced cytopathogenicity for these cells. By contrast, all 4 isolates had a poor replication capacity in goat and sheep fibroblasts. The proviral loads in the peripheral blood and, in particular, in the mammary gland were surprisingly high compared to previous observations. Nevertheless, these viruses appear to be of low virulence for goats except for the mammary gland were histopathological changes were observed.


Small ruminant lentiviruses continue to circulate in Switzerland despite a long and expensive caprine arthritis encephalitis virus eradication campaign. We isolated 4 of these lentiviruses and confirmed their phylogenetic association with the prominent A4 subtype. The pathological and histopathological analysis of the infected animals supported the hypothesis that these A4 viruses are of low pathogenicity for goats, with, however, a caveat about the potentially detrimental effects on the mammary gland. Moreover, the high proviral load detected indicates that the immune system of the animals cannot control the infection and this, combined with the phenotypic plasticity observed in vitro, strongly argues in favour of a continuous and precise monitoring of these SRLV to avoid the risk of jeopardizing a long eradication campaign.

CAEV; VMV; MVV; Visna; Maedi; SRLV; Virulence; Pathogenicity; Attenuation; Eradication