Koala retrovirus diversity, transmissibility, and disease associations

Retrovirology. 2020 Oct 2;17(1):34. doi: 10.1186/s12977-020-00541-1.


Background: Koalas are infected with the koala retrovirus (KoRV) that exists as exogenous or endogenous viruses. KoRV is genetically diverse with co-infection with up to ten envelope subtypes (A-J) possible; KoRV-A is the prototype endogenous form. KoRV-B, first found in a small number of koalas with an increased leukemia prevalence at one US zoo, has been associated with other cancers and increased chlamydial disease. To better understand the molecular epidemiology of KoRV variants and the effect of increased viral loads (VLs) on transmissibility and pathogenicity we developed subtype-specific quantitative PCR (qPCR) assays and tested blood and tissue samples from koalas at US zoos (n = 78), two Australian zoos (n = 27) and wild-caught (n = 21) in Australia. We analyzed PCR results with available clinical, demographic, and pedigree data.

Results: All koalas were KoRV-A-infected. A small number of koalas (10.3%) at one US zoo were also infected with non-A subtypes, while a higher non-A subtype prevalence (59.3%) was found in koalas at Australian zoos. Wild koalas from one location were only infected with KoRV-A. We observed a significant association of infection and plasma VLs of non-A subtypes in koalas that died of leukemia/lymphoma and other neoplasias and report cancer diagnoses in KoRV-A-positive animals. Infection and VLs of non-A subtypes was not associated with age or sex. Transmission of non-A subtypes occurred from dam-to-offspring and likely following adult-to-adult contact, but associations with contact type were not evaluated. Brief antiretroviral treatment of one leukemic koala infected with high plasma levels of KoRV-A, -B, and -F did not affect VL or disease progression.

Conclusions: Our results show a significant association of non-A KoRV infection and plasma VLs with leukemia and other cancers. Although we confirm dam-to-offspring transmission of these variants, we also show other routes are possible. Our validated qPCR assays will be useful to further understand KoRV epidemiology and its zoonotic transmission potential for humans exposed to koalas because KoRV can infect human cells.

Keywords: Diversity; Endogenous; Envelope; Exogenous; Koala retrovirus; Pathogenesis; Subtypes; Transmission; Viral load.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Wild
  • Animals, Zoo
  • Australia / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Gammaretrovirus / classification
  • Gammaretrovirus / genetics*
  • Gammaretrovirus / isolation & purification
  • Gammaretrovirus / pathogenicity
  • Genetic Variation
  • Male
  • Molecular Epidemiology
  • Phascolarctidae / virology*
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction / veterinary
  • Prevalence
  • RNA, Viral / genetics
  • Retroviridae Infections / epidemiology
  • Retroviridae Infections / transmission
  • Retroviridae Infections / veterinary*
  • Retroviridae Infections / virology
  • Tumor Virus Infections / epidemiology
  • Tumor Virus Infections / transmission
  • Tumor Virus Infections / veterinary*
  • Tumor Virus Infections / virology
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Viral Load


  • RNA, Viral