A new strain of virus is suspected in the deaths of three people in Germany who worked as squirrel breeders. All 3, in their 60s and 70s, died from brain inflammation, which may have been contracted from their variegated squirrels, according to a new report.
Variegated squirrels (Sciurus variegatoides), an exotic breed, are native to southern Mexico and Central America.
The study’s senior author, Dr. Martin Beer, head of virus diagnostics at the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute in Insel Riems, said:
“A new bornavirus that can be transmitted to humans and cause severe disease has been detected in variegated squirrels. The study shows that exotic animal species can have the risk of transmitting novel zoonotic viruses to humans from close contact.”
The three cases occurred between 2011 and 2013, but more detailed findings have now been published in the July 9 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
This squirrel virus strain, tentatively named variegated squirrel 1 bornavirus (VSBV-1), belongs to a group of viruses named bornaviruses. Usually infecting animals like birds, horses, and sheep, bornaviruses’ ability to cause disease in people has been a subject of debated among researchers.
The new findings suggest such viruses can indeed cause disease in humans, and, according to a recent statement from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, may represent an emerging threat to people in the area.
“VSBV-1 is likely to be a previously unknown zoonotic pathogen transmitted by the variegated squirrel,” the researchers concluded in the paper. However, the researchers noted, the study does not definitively prove a causative link between the virus and the encephalitis.
A Variegated Squirrel Bornavirus Associated with Fatal Human Encephalitis B. Hoffmann and Others New England Journal of Medicine July 9, 2015