Recently thousands of dead and decaying pigs were pulled from rivers in Shanghai and Jiaxing, China. Apparently farmers dumped the animals into the water after the pigs became ill. Porcine circovirus has been detected in the in pig carcasses and in the water.
Porcine circoviruses are small, icosahedral viruses that were discovered in 1974 as contaminants of a porcine kidney cell line. They were later called circoviruses when their genome was found to be a circular, single-stranded DNA molecule. Upon entry into cells, the viral ssDNA genome enters the nucleus where it is made double-stranded by host enzymes. It is then transcribed by host RNA polymerase II to form mRNAs that are translated into viral proteins. There is some evidence that circoviruses might have evolved from a plant virus that switched hosts and then recombined with a picorna-like virus.
Porcine circoviruses are classified in the Circoviridae family, which contains two genera, Circovirus and Gyrovirus. There are two porcine circoviruses, PCV-1 and PCV-2; only the latter causes disease in pigs. Infection probably occurs via oral and respiratory routes, and leads to various diseases including postweaning multisystemic wasting syndrome, and porcine dermatitis and nephropathy syndrome. Virions are shed in respiratory and oral secretions, urine, and feces of infected pigs. Other circoviruses may cause diseases of birds, including psittacine beak and feather disease, and chicken infectious anemia, the latter caused by the sole member of the Gyrovirus genus. There are also circoviruses that infect canaries, ducks, finches, geese, gulls, pigeons, starlings, and swans.
We have no good evidence that porcine or avian circoviruses can infect humans. In the United States, porcine circovirus sequences can be detected in human feces. These most likely originate from consumption of pork products, most of which also contain porcine circoviruses. Circovirus sequences have also been found in commonly eaten animals such as cows, goats, sheep, camels, and chickens. Outside of the United States, the circoviruses found in human stools do not appear to be derived by meat consumption and might cause enteric infections.
Recently both PCV-1 and PCV-2 sequences were detected in Rotarix and RotaTeq, vaccines for the prevention of rotavirus disease in infants. The source of the contaminant was trypsin, an enzyme purified from porcine pancreas, which is used in the production of cell cultures used for vaccine production. Use of these vaccines was temporarily suspended, but resumed when the Food and Drug Administration concluded that there is no evidence that porcine circoviruses pose a safety risk to humans.
The good news is that porcine circoviruses in Shanghai’s waters are no danger to humans. But it is not a good idea to have rotting pig carcasses in a river that supplies some of Shanghai’s drinking water.