Historical Article

History of Orbivirus research in South Africa

Daniel W. Verwoerd
Journal of the South African Veterinary Association | Vol 83, No 1 | a532 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/jsava.v83i1.532 | © 2012 Daniel W. Verwoerd | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 03 July 2012 | Published: 13 November 2012

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Daniel W. Verwoerd, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria, South Africa

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In the early colonial history of South Africa, horses played an important role, both in general transportation and in military operations. Frequent epidemics of African horsesickness (AHS) in the 18th century therefore severely affected the economy. The first scientific research on the disease was carried out by Alexander Edington (1892), the first government bacteriologist of the Cape Colony, who resolved the existing confusion that reigned and established its identity as a separate disease. Bluetongue (BT) was described for the first time by Duncan Hutcheon in 1880, although it was probably always endemic in wild ruminants and only became a problem when highly susceptible Merino sheep were introduced to the Cape in the late 18th century. The filterability of the AHS virus (AHSV) was demonstrated in 1900 by M’Fadyean in London, and that of the BT virus (BTV) in 1905 by Theiler at Onderstepoort, thus proving the viral nature of both agents. Theiler developed the first vaccines for both diseases at Onderstepoort. Both vaccines consisted of infective blood followed by hyper-immune serum, and were used for many years. Subsequent breakthroughs include the adaptation to propagation and attenuation in embryonated eggs in the case of BTV and in mouse brains for AHSV. This was followed by the discovery of multiple serotypes of both viruses, the transmission of both by Culicoides midges and their eventual replication in cell cultures. Molecular studies led to the discovery of the segmented double-stranded RNA genomes, thus proving their genetic relationship and leading to their classification in a genus called Orbivirus. Further work included the molecular cloning of the genes of all the serotypes of both viruses and clarification of their relationship to the viral proteins, which led to much improved diagnostic techniques and eventually to the development of a recombinant vaccine, which unfortunately has so far been unsuitable for mass production.


Orbiviruses; African horsesickness; bluetongue disease; history of research; South Africa


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