Scientists in the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health have discovered a new virus in seals that is the closest known relative of the human hepatitis A virus. The finding provides new clues on the emergence of hepatitis A. The research appears in the July/August issue of mBio, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.
“Until now, we didn’t know that hepatitis A had any close relatives, and we thought that only humans and other primates could be infected by such viruses,” said lead author Simon Anthony, assistant professor of Epidemiology. “Our findings show that these so-called ‘hepatoviruses’ are not in fact restricted to primates, and suggest that many more may also exist in other wildlife species.”
Hepatitis A viral infection, which impacts 1.4 million people worldwide annually, can cause mild to severe illness. It is a highly contagious disease that is usually transmitted by the fecal-oral route, either through person-to-person contact or through consumption of food or water. “Our data suggest that hepatitis A and this new virus share a common ancestor, which means that a spillover event must have occurred at some point in the past,” said Anthony. “It raises the question of whether hepatitis A originated in animals, like many other viruses that are now adapted to humans.”