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Ghosts of infections past: using archival samples to understand a century of monkeypox virus prevalence among host communities across space and time


Infectious diseases that originate from multiple wildlife hosts can be complex and problematic to manage. A full understanding is further limited by large temporal and spatial gaps in sampling. However, these limitations can be overcome, in part, by using historical samples, such as those derived from museum collections. Here, we screened over 1000 museum specimens collected over the past 120 years to examine the historical distribution and prevalence of monkeypox virus (MPXV) in five species of African rope squirrel (Funisciurus sp.) collected across Central Africa. We found evidence of MPXV infections in host species as early as 1899, half a century earlier than the first recognized case of MPXV in 1958, supporting the suggestion that historic pox-like outbreaks in humans and non-human primates may have been caused by MPXV rather than smallpox as originally thought. MPX viral DNA was found in 93 of 1038 (9.0%) specimens from five Funisciurus species (F. anerythrus, F. carruthersi, F. congicus, F. lemniscatus and F. pyrropus), of which F. carruthersi and pyrropus had not previously been identified as potential MPXV hosts. We additionally documented relative prevalence rates of infection in museum specimens of Funisciurus and examined the spatial and temporal distribution of MPXV in these potential host species across nearly a hundred years (1899-1993).

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