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BACKGROUND: Rabies is an important but underestimated threat to public health, with most cases reported in Asia. Since 2000, a new epidemic wave of rabies has emerged in Yunnan Province, southwestern China, which borders three countries in Southeast Asia. METHOD: We estimated gene-specific evolutionary rates for rabies virus using available data in GenBank, then used this information to calibrate the timescale of rabies virus (RABV) spread in Asia. We used 452 publicly available geo-referenced complete nucleoprotein (N) gene sequences, including 52 RABV sequences that were recently generated from samples collected in Yunnan between 2008 and 2012. RESULTS: The RABV N gene evolutionary rate was estimated to be 1.88 × 10-4 (1.37-2.41 × 10-4, 95% Bayesian credible interval, BCI) substitutions per site per year. Phylogenetic reconstructions show that the currently circulating RABV lineages in Yunnan result from at least seven independent introductions (95% BCI: 6-9 introductions) and represent each of the three main Asian RABV lineages, SEA-1, -2 and -3. We find that Yunnan is a sink location for the domestic spread of RABV and connects RABV epidemics in North China, South China, and Southeast Asia. Cross-border spread from southeast Asia (SEA) into South China, and intermixing of the North and South China epidemics is also well supported. The influx of RABV into Yunnan from SEA was not well-supported, likely due to the poor sampling of SEA RABV diversity. We found evidence for a lineage displacement of the Yunnan SEA-2 and -3 lineages by Yunnan SEA-1 strains, and considered whether this could be attributed to fitness differences. CONCLUSION: Overall, our study contributes to a better understanding of the spread of RABV that could facilitate future rabies virus control and prevention efforts.

Original publication




Journal article


Virol J

Publication Date





China, Evolutionary dynamics, N gene, Rabies virus, Viral phylogeography, Yunnan, China, Evolution, Molecular, Humans, Molecular Epidemiology, Nucleocapsid Proteins, Rabies, Rabies virus