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Herpesviruses are ubiquitous pathogens infecting most animals. Although host immunity continually coevolves to combat virulence, viral variants with enhanced transmissibility or virulence occasionally emerge, resulting in disease burdens in host populations. Mustelid gammaherpesvirus 1 (MusGHV-1) is the only herpesvirus species identified thus far in European badgers, Meles meles. No MusGHV-1 associated pathomorbidity has been reported, but reactivation of MusGHV-1 in genital tracts is linked to impaired female reproductive success. An analysis of a short sequence from the highly conserved DNA polymerase (DNApol) gene previously identified two variants in a single host population. Here we compared genetic variance in blood samples from 66 known individuals of this same free-ranging badger population using a partial sequence comprising 2874 nucleotides of the DNApol gene, among which we identified 15 nucleotide differences resulting in 5 amino acid differences. Prevalence was 86% (59/66) for the common and 17% (11/66) for the novel variant, with 6% (4/66) of badgers presenting with coinfection. MusGHV-1 variants were distributed unevenly across the population, with individuals infected with the novel genotype clustered in 3 of 25 contiguous social groups. Individuals infected with the novel variant had significantly higher MusGHV-1 viral loads in their blood (p = 0.002) after adjusting for age (juveniles > adults, p < 0.001) and season (summer > spring and autumn, p = 0.005; mixed-effect linear regression), likely indicating higher virulence of the novel variant. Further genome-wide analyses of MusGHV-1 host resistance genes and host phenotypic variations are required to clarify the drivers and sequelae of this new MusGHV-1 variant.

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