Journal of Virology vol:80 issue:9 pages:4220-4226
Epidemiological and phylogenetic studies of hepatitis C virus (HCV) have identified six major HCV genotypes and have attempted to characterize their origin and spread worldwide. Putative regions of endemic infection have been identified for all HCV genotypes except HCV genotype 5a. Although HCV genotype 5a was previously thought to be largely restricted to the northern part of South Africa, this study reports an unexpected cluster of the genotype in West Flanders Province in Belgium. To investigate the molecular epidemiology of this cluster and of HCV genotype 5a in general, a rigorous phylogenetic analysis of Belgian and South African HCV genotype 5a samples was performed. Remarkably, the Belgian and South African strains form two distinct clusters of similar diversity. We used a Bayesian coalescent method to estimate the rate of virus spread through time for HCV genotype 5a in both regions. Our results indicate that HCV genotype 5a strains have been spreading independently in Belgium and South Africa for more than 100 years, with a rate of spread characteristic of an epidemic genotype. These findings have major implications for tracing the origin of HCV genotype 5a. Here, we speculate about the possible origins of these clusters.