Real-time RT-PCR for Venezuelan equine encephalitis complex, Madariaga, and Eastern equine encephalitis viruses: application in human and mosquito public health surveillance in Panama

J Clin Microbiol. 2023 Nov 20:e0015223. doi: 10.1128/jcm.00152-23. Online ahead of print.


Eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEEV), Madariaga virus (MADV), and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus complex (VEEV) are New World alphaviruses transmitted by mosquitoes. They cause febrile and sometimes severe neurological diseases in human and equine hosts. Detecting them during the acute phase is hindered by non-specific symptoms and limited diagnostic tools. We designed and clinically assessed real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction assays (rRT-PCRs) for VEEV complex, MADV, and EEEV using whole-genome sequences. Validation involved 15 retrospective serum samples from 2015 to 2017 outbreaks, 150 mosquito pools from 2015, and 118 prospective samples from 2021 to 2022 surveillance in Panama. The rRT-PCRs detected VEEV complex RNA in 10 samples (66.7%) from outbreaks, with one having both VEEV complex and MADV RNAs. VEEV complex RNA was found in five suspected dengue cases from disease surveillance. The rRT-PCR assays identified VEEV complex RNA in three Culex (Melanoconion) vomerifer pools, leading to VEEV isolates in two. Phylogenetic analysis revealed the VEEV ID subtype in positive samples. Notably, 11.9% of dengue-like disease patients showed VEEV infections. Together, our rRT-PCR validation in human and mosquito samples suggests that this method can be incorporated into mosquito and human encephalitic alphavirus surveillance programs in endemic regions.

Keywords: Eastern equine encephalitis virus; Madariaga virus; Venezuelan equine encephalitis; alphavirus; rRT-PCR.