Arctic foxes, 620 that were trapped and 22 found dead on Svalbard, Norway (1996–2004), as well as 10 foxes trapped in Nenets, North-West Russia (1999), were tested for rabies virus antigen in brain tissue by standard direct fluorescent antibody test. Rabies antigen was found in two foxes from Svalbard and in three from Russia. Blood samples from 515 of the fox carcasses were screened for rabies antibodies with negative result. Our results, together with a previous screening (1980–1989, n=817) indicate that the prevalence of rabies in Svalbard has remained low or that the virus has not been enzootic in the arctic fox population since the first reported outbreak in 1980. Brain tissues from four arctic foxes (one from Svalbard, three from Russia) in which rabies virus antigen was detected were further analyzed by reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction direct amplicon sequencing and phylogenetic analysis. Sequences were compared to corresponding sequences from rabies virus isolates from other arctic regions. The Svalbard isolate and two of the Russian isolates were identical (310 nucleotides), whereas the third Russian isolate differed in six nucleotide positions. However, when translated into amino acid sequences, none of these substitutions produced changes in the amino acid sequence. These findings suggest that the spread of rabies virus to Svalbard was likely due to migration of arctic foxes over sea ice from Russia to Svalbard. Furthermore, when compared to other Arctic rabies virus isolates, a high degree of homology was found, suggesting a high contact rate between arctic fox populations from different arctic regions. The high degree of homology also indicates that other, and more variable, regions of the genome than this part of the nucleoprotein gene should be used to distinguish Arctic rabies virus isolates for epidemiologic purposes.
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Vol. 47 • No. 4