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Distinct but related species of elephant endotheliotropic herpesviruses (EEHVs) circulate within Asian and African elephant populations. Primary infection with EEHVs endemic among Asian elephants can cause clinical illness and lethal EEHV hemorrhagic disease (EEHV-HD). The degree to which this occurs among African elephants has not been fully established. Recent cases of EEHV-HD caused by the EEHV3 species in African elephants housed in North American zoos has heightened concern about the susceptibility of this elephant species to EEHV-HD. In this study, we utilize the luciferase immunoprecipitation system (LIPS) to generate a serological assay specific for EEHV3 in African elephants by detecting antibodies against the EEHV3 E34 protein. The results showed that the majority of tested elephants from four separate and genetically unrelated herds, including five elephants that survived clinical illness associated with EEHV3, were positive for prior infection with EEHV3. However, African elephants who succumbed to EEHV3-HD were seronegative for EEHV3 prior to lethal infection. This supports the hypothesis that fatal EEHV-HD caused by EEHV3 is associated with primary infection rather than reactivation of latent virus. Lastly, we observed that African elephants, like Asian elephants, acquire abundant anti-EEHV antibodies prenatally and that anti-EEHV3 specific antibodies were either never detected or declined to undetectable levels in those animals that died from lethal disease following EEHV3 infection. IMPORTANCE Prior to 2019, only five cases of clinical disease from EEHV infection among African elephants had been documented. Since 2019, there have been at least seven EEHV-HD cases in North American zoos, resulting in three fatalities, all associated with EEHV3. Evidence is accumulating to suggest that EEHV-associated clinical illness and death among Asian elephants is due to primary infection and may be associated with waning anti-EEHV antibody levels in young elephants. The development of the EEHV3 serological test described in this study enabled us to confirm that similar dynamics may be contributing to EEHV-HD in African elephants. The ability to screen for EEHV immune status in African elephant calves will have a major impact on managing captive African elephant herds and will provide new tools for investigating and understanding EEHV in wild populations.

Original publication




Journal article


Microbiol Spectr

Publication Date





elephant, herpesvirus, serology, Animals, Animals, Zoo, Antibodies, Viral, Elephants, Female, Hemorrhagic Disorders, Herpesvirus 3, Equid, Male, Serologic Tests, Viral Zoonoses