Man chasing rabbit
Man chasing rabbit
(From “
Fliegende Blätter”, Munich, 1889)

Everyone knows about rabbits in Australia. Introduced in the mid-1800s, they multiplied ridiculously and ate their way across the country, leaving barren devastation behind them.

Myxomavirus, a poxvirus that originated in South America, was introduced in the early 1950s and temporarily controlled the rabbit population, cutting their numbers by 85% (to a mere hundred million rabbits); but the rabbits evolved some resistance, and the virus evolved somewhat reduced virulence, and after about 15 years the rabbit population started to build up again. (I’ve talked about myxomatosis and rabbit control here and here.)

Myxomavirus isn’t a natural pathogen of European rabbits; its natural hosts are American rabbits, in which it causes a much more mild disease. It’s a virus that jumped into a new species, was very virulent in that new species, and then became less so over 15 years or so of transmission in the new species.

Myxomavirus is often used as an example of a virus that evolves toward avirulence, with the message usually being that this is the usual path of evolution. For example, you’ll see comments like, “Typically, viruses that rapidly kill their host have a very short history, as they rapidly run out of places to reproduce.” As I’ve tried to point out several times (see the myxomavirus links above), this isn’t true; pathogens in general evolve toward improved transmission, not reduced virulence. In many cases, reducing virulence does enhance transmission, but it’s not the only path. And myxomavirus doesn’t even support the claim all that well, given that even the “low-virulence” strain that’s out there now still has a mortality rate about the same as Ebolavirus, or smallpox.

OK, hold that thought.

Extermination of rabbits in California, 1894
Extermination of rabbits in California
(From “The Picture Magazine,” 1894)

Myxomavirus worked well to control rabbits for a while, then became less effective. In 1995, a new virus was introduced into Australia and New Zealand,1 a calicivirus that causes Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease, called (with stunning originality) Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV). Where did RHDV come from?

Basically RHDV is the opposite of myxomavirus. The parent of RHDV is a natural virus of European rabbits, but it causes little or no disease. RHDV is a natural mutation of this virus, and it has very high virulence – the opposite of the viruses-evolve-to-low-virulence claim. Even with the help of Australian farmers, RHDV is highly successful. It spread around the world in the mid-1980s after first appearing in Chinese rabbits in 1984.

One of the most intriguing aspects of RHDV evolution is that this virus appears to have maintained its very high virulence during the 25 years since it emerged. At face value this suggests that virulence is adaptive for transmission. 2

Rabbit's eye (Max Brodel, 1932)
Rabbit’s eye (Max Brödel, 1932)

In fact, it’s been believed that the virulent RHDV is such a successful mutation that it arose several times, independently, from the mild parent virus. (Compare to the feline infectious peritonitis story, where the prevalent explanation for the appearance of a virulent FIP infection is that innocuous gastrointestinal coronaviruses, that are widespread in cats, mutates to form the virulent form; and this mutation is independent for each cat, rather than arising once and then spreading.)

At least, that’s been the established explanation, but a recent paper2 shows that a couple aspects of that aren’t correct. The authors looked at genome sequences of many rabbit caliciviruses (the mild parent calicivirus as well as the virulent RHDV) to track its origins and spread. RHDV is indeed a recent mutation from a mild parent virus; that much is correct. But RHDV probably only arose once, not multiple times, and the origin of RHDV was well before 1984) when it was identified as a disease.

The independent-mutation hypothesis was based mainly on finding RHDV-related viruses circulating in Europe in the 1950s:

Prior phylogenetic work led to suggestions that RHDV with sequences closely related to those that emerged from China in 1984 were circulating harmlessly in the United Kingdom and other European localities during the 1950s; hence, it was suggested that virulence emerged at least twice during the late 20th century: once in Europe and once in China. 2

But Kerr et al looked more closely at these early isolates, and don’t think they’re real:

… we show here that the sequences from the 1950s and 1970s from the United Kingdom appear to be modern contaminants: given the rate of RHDV evolution documented here and that of RNA viruses more generally, these early RHDV sequences are expected to be far more divergent from their modern counterparts. 2

(Compare to the influenza database, where there also seems to be a significant level of mis-identified virus.)

So RHDV probably only originated once, which is a little more reassuring than the notion that this high virulence is so easy to achieve that it can appear many times over a short period. Did the original mutation appear around 1984, when the disease was noted? The authors identified 4 distinct strains of RHDV and noted:

A common feature of all of these groups is that many lineages likely originated during the 1970s, suggesting that there was a period of viral radiation at this time…. Crucially, this also means that there were already multiple separate lineages of RHDV before the documented emergence of RHD in China in 1984.  … This implies either that high virulence evolved multiple times in multiple viral lineages close to 1984 or (more plausibly) that virulence emerged earlier in the 20th century but the disease was not documented until 1984 when the trade in rabbits provided the opportunity for RHDV to spread from an established, but apparently cryptic, transmission cycle. … Therefore, we propose that the most likely scenario is that virulent RHDV strains evolved once, early in the 20th century, but were not detected until 1984. 2

(My emphasis) This seems, at first glance, surprising. RHDV kills almost all of the rabbits it infects. Wouldn’t you notice it if all your rabbits suddenly fell over dead? How could RHDV circulate for years or decades without being detected? Kerr et al make some points about the nature of the disease (it can infect very young kits without killing them, for example), but also comment:

Given the difficult sociopolitical conditions in China and neighboring countries in the first half of the 20th century, it is plausible that a virulent disease in rabbits was able to evolve in this region without leaving a clear record. 2

The pandemic swine-origin H1N1 probably has been circulating in swine for quite a while (years? decades?) without being picked up, and probably circulated in humans in Mexico for months before it was detected there. It’s pretty easy to believe that rabbits in China during the Cultural Revolution didn’t get as much attention as pigs in the US in the 2000s.

So, an interesting story in its own right, especially thinking about evolution of virulence in pathogens; and also, a story that probably reflects some important lessons for human health.

  1. It wasn’t supposed to be introduced then; it was penciled in for few years later, after more study, but somehow it jumped from the island where it was being studied to the mainland. The usual explanation is “via insects”, but of course one has to wonder if some Australian farmers didn’t help the insects along some. As I recall from the news reports at the time, the “accidentally introduced” virus spread throughout Australia very fast, almost as if dead rabbits were being carted around by car or something.[]
  2. Kerr, P., Kitchen, A., & Holmes, E. (2009). Origin and Phylodynamics of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus Journal of Virology, 83 (23), 12129-12138 DOI: 10.1128/JVI.01523-09 [][][][][][]