Phylogenomic insights to the origin and spread of phocine distemper virus in European harbour seals in 1988 and 2002
The 1988 and 2002 phocine distemper virus (PDV) outbreaks in European harbour seals Phoca vitulina are among the largest mass mortality events recorded in marine mammals. Despite its large impact on harbour seal population numbers, and 3 decades of studies, many questions regarding the spread and temporal origin of PDV remain unanswered. Here, we sequenced and analysed 7123 bp of the PDV genome, including the coding and non-coding regions of the entire P, M, F and H genes in tissues from 44 harbour seals to shed new light on the origin and spread of PDV in 1988 and 2002. The phylogenetic analyses trace the origin of the PDV strain causing the 1988 outbreak to between May 1987 and April 1988, while the origin of the strain causing the 2002 outbreak can be traced back to between June 2001 and May 2002. The analyses further point to several independent introductions of PDV in 1988, possibly linked to a southward mass immigration of harp seals in the winter and spring of 1987-1988. The vector for the 2002 outbreak is unknown, but the epidemiological analyses suggest the subsequent spread of PDV from the epicentre in the Kattegat, Denmark, to haul-out sites in the North Sea through several independent introductions.