First isolation and phylogenetic analyses of tick-borne encephalitis virus in Lower Saxony, Germany
Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) is the most important tick-borne arboviral disease in Europe. Presently, the main endemic regions in Germany are located in the southern half of the country. Although recently, sporadic human TBE cases were reported outside of these known endemic regions. The detection and characterization of invading TBE virus (TBEV) strains will considerably facilitate the surveillance and assessment of this important disease. In 2018, ticks were collected by flagging in several locations of the German federal state of Lower Saxony where TBEV-infections in humans (diagnosed clinical TBE disease or detection of TBEV antibodies) were reported previously. Ticks were pooled according to their developmental stage and tested for TBEV-RNA by RT-qPCR. Five of 730 (0.68%) pools from Ixodes spp. ticks collected in the areas of "Rauher Busch" and "Barsinghausen/Mooshuette" were found positive for TBEV-RNA. Phylogenetic analysis of the whole genomes and E gene sequences revealed a close relationship between the two TBEV isolates, which cluster with a TBEV strain from Poland isolated in 1971. This study provides first data on the phylogeny of TBEV in the German federal state of Lower Saxony, outside of the known TBE endemic areas of Germany. Our results support the hypothesis of an east-west invasion of TBEV strains in Western Europe.