Purpose of review: West Nile virus emerged recently in North America as a serious human and animal pathogen. This review summarizes the use of experimental infections with West Nile virus in diverse vertebrate species that have been used to answer fundamental questions about the host response, pathogenesis of West Nile virus infection and virus evolution.
Recent findings: West Nile virus has an extremely broad vertebrate host range. Infection of common species of birds has defined those with high vs. low potential to serve as amplifying hosts for the virus. In general, mammals (primates, horses, companion animals) are dead-end hosts for West Nile virus, although some circumstances (i.e. immunosuppression) may allow individuals to become capable of transmitting the virus to mosquitoes. Some mammals (rodents, rabbits, squirrels) and reptiles (alligators) have been found to develop a viremia of sufficient magnitude to predict at least low competence for infecting feeding mosquitoes. Finally, experimental infection of rodents, horses and primates with West Nile virus has been integral to developing and evaluating the efficacy of West Nile virus vaccines.
Summary: Experimental infection with West Nile virus has assisted in delineating those hosts important and not important to the transmission cycle, in understanding how the virus induces disease in susceptible hosts, and in validating the efficacy of vaccines used for control of disease.