Fifty-five rabies virus isolates originating from different regions of the former Soviet Union (FSU) were compared with isolates originating from Eurasia, Africa, and North America according to complete or partial nucleoprotein (N) gene sequences. The FSU isolates formed five distinct groups. Group A represented viruses originating from the Arctic, which were similar to viruses from Alaska and Canada. Group B consisted of “Arctic-like” viruses, originating from the south of East Siberia and the Far East. Group C consisted of viruses circulating in the steppe and forest-steppe territories from the European part of Russia to Tuva and in Kazakhstan. These three phylogenetic groups were clearly different from the European cluster. Viruses of group D circulate near the western border of Russia. Their phylogenetic position is intermediate between group C and the European cluster. Group E consisted of viruses originating from the northwestern part of Russia and comprised a “northeastern Europe” group described earlier from the Baltic region. According to surveillance data, a specific host can be defined clearly only for group A (arctic fox; Alopex lagopus) and for the Far Eastern part of the group B distribution area (raccoon dog; Nyctereutes procyonoides). For other territories and rabies virus variants, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is the main virus reservoir. However, the steppe fox (Vulpes corsac), wolf (Canis lupus), and raccoon dog are also involved in virus circulation, depending on host population density. These molecular data, joined with surveillance information, demonstrate that the current fox rabies epizootic in the territory of the FSU developed independently of central and western Europe. No evidence of positive selection was found in the N genes of the isolates. In the glycoprotein gene, evidence of positive selection was strongly suggested in codons 156, 160, and 183. At these sites, no link between amino acid substitutions and phylogenetic placement or specific host species was detected.
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Vol. 40 • No. 4