Serpentoviruses: More than respiratory pathogens

Eva Dervas, Jussi Hepojoki, Teemu Smura, Barbara Prähauser, Katharina Windbichler, Sandra Blümich, Antonio Ramis, Udo Hetzel, Anja Kipar*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In recent years, nidoviruses have emerged as important respiratory pathogens of reptiles, affecting captive python populations. In pythons, nidovirus (recently reclassified as serpentovirus) infection induces an inflammation of the upper respiratory and alimentary tract which can develop into a severe, often fatal proliferative pneumonia. We observed pyogranulomatous and fibrinonecrotic lesions in organ systems other than the respiratory tract during full postmortem examinations on 30 serpentovirus reverse transcription-PCR (RT-PCR)-positive pythons of varying species originating from Switzerland and Spain. The observations prompted us to study whether this not yet reported wider distribution of lesions is associated with previously unknown serpentoviruses or changes in the serpentovirus genome. RT-PCR and inoculation of Morelia viridis cell cultures served to recruit the cases and obtain virus isolates. Immunohistochemistry and immunofluorescence staining against serpentovirus nucleoprotein demonstrated that the virus infects not only a broad spectrum of epithelia (respiratory and alimentary epithelium, hepatocytes, renal tubules, pancreatic ducts, etc.), but also intravascular monocytes, intralesional macrophages, and endothelial cells. With next-generation sequencing we obtained a full-length genome for a novel serpentovirus species circulating in Switzerland. Analysis of viral genomes recovered from pythons showing serpentovirus infection-associated respiratory or systemic disease did not reveal sequence association to phenotypes; however, functional studies with different strains are needed to confirm this observation. The results indicate that serpentoviruses have a broad cell and tissue tropism, further suggesting that the course of infection could vary and involve lesions in a broad spectrum of tissues and organ systems as a consequence of monocyte-mediated viral systemic spread. IMPORTANCE During the last years, python nidoviruses (now reclassified as serpentoviruses) have become a primary cause of fatal disease in pythons. Serpentoviruses represent a threat to captive snake collections, as they spread rapidly and can be associated with high morbidity and mortality. Our study indicates that, different from previous evidence, the viruses do not only affect the respiratory tract, but can spread in the entire body with blood monocytes, have a broad spectrum of target cells, and can induce a variety of lesions. Nidovirales is an order of animal and human viruses that comprises important zoonotic pathogens such as Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), and SARS-CoV-2. Serpentoviruses belong to the same order as the above-mentioned human viruses and show similar characteristics (rapid spread, respiratory and gastrointestinal tropism, etc.). The present study confirms the relevance of natural animal diseases to better understand the complexity of viruses of the order Nidovirales.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00649-20
JournalJournal of Virology
Issue number18
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2020


  • Granulomatous inflammation
  • Serpentoviruses
  • Systemic viral infection
  • Vasculitis
  • Viremia


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