When related segmented RNA viruses co-infect a single cell, viral reassortment can occur, potentially leading to new strains with pandemic potential. One virus capable of reassortment is bluetongue virus (BTV), which causes substantial health impacts in ruminants and is transmitted via Culicoides midges. Because midges can become co-infected by feeding on multiple different host species and remain infected for their entire life span, there is a high potential for reassortment to occur. Once a midge is co-infected, additional barriers must be crossed for a reassortant virus to emerge, such as cellular co-infection and dissemination of reassortant viruses to the salivary glands. We developed three mathematical models of within-midge BTV dynamics of increasing complexity, allowing us to explore the conditions leading to the emergence of reassortant viruses. In confronting the simplest model with published data, we estimate that the average life span of a bluetongue virion in the midge midgut is about 6 h, a key determinant of establishing a successful infection. Examination of the full model, which permits cellular co-infection and reassortment, shows that small differences in fitness of the two infecting strains can have a large impact on the frequency with which reassortant virions are observed. This is consistent with experimental co-infection studies with BTV strains with different relative fitnesses that did not produce reassortant progeny. Our models also highlight several gaps in existing data that would allow us to elucidate these dynamics in more detail, in particular the times it takes the virus to disseminate to different tissues, and measurements of viral load and reassortant frequency at different temperatures.
Ceratopogonidae, Culicoides sp. 2.5 mm
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