Since the discovery of equine hepacivirus (EqHV) in 2011, the virus has been detected in horse populations from more than twelve countries across five continents. EqHV seroprevalence has been reported to be as high as 61.8% and EqHV ribonucleic acid (RNA) prevalence to range between 0.9% and 34.1%. Molecular and serological indications of EqHV infection have never been reported in equids on the African continent. Therefore, investigation of EqHV prevalence in South African horses and subsequent viral genetic characterization contribute to a better understanding of the global epidemiology of this virus.
In a cross-sectional study, serum samples from 454 Thoroughbred foals (aged 58–183 days) were analysed for anti-EqHV non-structural protein 3 (NS3)-specific antibodies (abs) with a luciferase immunoprecipitation system (LIPS) and for EqHV RNA by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR). Farms of origin (n = 26) were situated in South Africa’s Western Cape Province. The associations between EqHV infection state and farm of origin, foal gender and foal age were subsequently described. Furthermore, nested PCRs were performed on parts of the 5′UTR, NS3 and NS5B genes of 17 samples. Samples were sequenced and phylogenetic analyses were conducted.
The population’s seroprevalence was 83.70% and RNA was detected in 7.93% of samples. Increasing foal age was associated with decreasing ab prevalence and increasing prevalence of EqHV RNA. Sequences from South African EqHV strains did not show in-depth clustering with published sequences of EqHV isolates from particular continents.
In conclusion, EqHV is present in the South African Thoroughbred population and appears more prevalent than reported in other horse populations worldwide.