Mother-to-child transmission is an important route for hepatitis B virus (HBV) dissemination. It has been established that HBV traces persist for years after complete clinical recovery from hepatitis B. Similarly, resolution of hepatitis caused by HBV-related woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV) is followed by occult lifelong carriage of pathogenic virus. In this study, we documented that WHV persisting after termination of acute hepatitis is transmittable to newborns as an asymptomatic long-term infection. All 11 offspring from 4 dams studied carried transcriptionally active WHV genomes for 3.5 years after birth without immunovirological markers of infection. WHV genomes and mRNA were detected both in the liver and lymphoid tissue in the majority of offspring; WHV covalently closed circular DNA was detected in some samples. In 4 offspring, however, the virus was restricted to the lymphatic system. In the circulation, WHV DNA–reactive particles were DNase resistant and of comparable size and density to complete virions. Importantly, the virus in offspring with or without hepatic WHV DNA expression was infectious to WHV-naive woodchucks. Finally, offspring challenged with WHV were not protected against reinfection. These findings show that mothers with occult hepadnaviral carriage transmit pathogenic virus to their offspring, inducing a persistent infection invariably within the lymphatic system but not always in the liver.


Carla S. Coffin, Tomasz I. Michalak


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