The economic impact of non-lethal human and equine West Nile virus (WNV) disease is substantial, since it is the most common presentation of the infection. Experimental infection with virulent WNV strains in the mouse and hamster models frequently results in severe neural infection and moderate to high mortality, both of which are not representative features of most human and equine infections. We have established a rabbit model for investigating pathogenesis and immune response of non-lethal WNV infection. Two species of rabbits, New Zealand White (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and North American cottontail (Sylvilagus sp.), were experimentally infected with virulent WNV and Murray Valley encephalitis virus strains. Infected rabbits exhibited a consistently resistant phenotype, with evidence of low viremia, minimal-absent neural infection, mild-moderate neuropathology, and the lack of mortality, even though productive virus replication occurred in the draining lymph node. The kinetics of anti-WNV neutralizing antibody response was comparable to that commonly seen in infected horses and humans. This may be explained by the early IFNα/β and/or γ response evident in the draining popliteal lymph node. Given this similarity to the human and equine disease, immunocompetent rabbits are, therefore, a valuable animal model for investigating various aspects of non-lethal WNV infections.
Keywords: West Nile virus; animal models; pathogenesis; rabbit.