Identification and characterization of avian retroviruses in chicken embryo-derived yellow fever vaccines: investigation of transmission to vaccine recipients

J Virol. 2003 Jan;77(2):1105-11. doi: 10.1128/jvi.77.2.1105-1111.2003.


All currently licensed yellow fever (YF) vaccines are propagated in chicken embryos. Recent studies of chick cell-derived measles and mumps vaccines show evidence of two types of retrovirus particles, the endogenous avian retrovirus (EAV) and the endogenous avian leukosis virus (ALV-E), which originate from the chicken embryonic fibroblast substrates. In this study, we investigated substrate-derived avian retrovirus contamination in YF vaccines currently produced by three manufacturers (YF-vax [Connaught Laboratories], Stamaril [Aventis], and YF-FIOCRUZ [FIOCRUZ-Bio-Manguinhos]). Testing for reverse transcriptase (RT) activity was not possible because of assay inhibition. However, Western blot analysis of virus pellets with anti-ALV RT antiserum detected three distinct RT proteins in all vaccines, indicating that more than one source is responsible for the RTs present in the vaccines. PCR analysis of both chicken substrate DNA and particle-associated RNA from the YF vaccines showed no evidence of the long terminal repeat sequences of exogenous ALV subgroups A to D in any of the vaccines. In contrast, both ALV-E and EAV particle-associated RNA were detected at equivalent titers in each vaccine by RT-PCR. Quantitative real-time RT-PCR revealed 61,600, 348,000, and 1,665,000 ALV-E RNA copies per dose of Stamaril, YF-FIOCRUZ, and YF-vax vaccines, respectively. ev locus-specific PCR testing of the vaccine-associated chicken substrate DNA was positive both for the nondefective ev-12 locus in two vaccines and for the defective ev-1 locus in all three vaccines. Both intact and ev-1 pol sequences were also identified in the particle-associated RNA. To investigate the risks of transmission, serum samples from 43 YF vaccine recipients were studied. None of the samples were seropositive by an ALV-E-based Western blot assay or had detectable EAV or ALV-E RNA sequences by RT-PCR. YF vaccines produced by the three manufacturers all have particles containing EAV genomes and various levels of defective or nondefective ALV-E sequences. The absence of evidence of infection with ALV-E or EAV in 43 YF vaccine recipients suggests low risks for transmission of these viruses, further supporting the safety of these vaccines.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Avian Leukosis Virus / enzymology
  • Avian Leukosis Virus / genetics
  • Avian Leukosis Virus / isolation & purification*
  • Base Sequence
  • Blotting, Western
  • Chick Embryo
  • DNA Primers
  • DNA, Viral / analysis
  • Drug Contamination*
  • Humans
  • RNA, Viral / analysis
  • RNA-Directed DNA Polymerase / metabolism
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Viral Proteins / genetics
  • Yellow Fever Vaccine* / administration & dosage*


  • DNA Primers
  • DNA, Viral
  • RNA, Viral
  • Viral Proteins
  • Yellow Fever Vaccine
  • RNA-Directed DNA Polymerase