Rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) has killed many millions of wild rabbits in Europe and Australia, but has had little impact in the United Kingdom, despite outbreaks having occurred since 1994. High seroprevalence detected in the absence of associated mortality had suggested the presence of an endemic non-pathogenic strain which may be ‘protecting’ UK populations. Following the first detailed field study of RHDV epidemiology in the United Kingdom, using mark–recapture with serum sampling, we report that RHDV caused highly prevalent persistent infection in seropositive rabbits in the absence of associated mortality. Furthermore the virus strains responsible could not be distinguished phylogenetically from known pathogenic isolates, and were clearly very different from the only previously identified non-pathogenic strain of RHDV. These findings suggest that many – perhaps most – strains of RHDV may be propagated through both ‘pathogenic’ and ‘non-pathogenic’ modes of behaviour. Transmission occurred predominantly during and just after the breeding season.
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