Genomic dissection of an Icelandic epidemic of respiratory disease in horses and associated zoonotic cases

Sigríður Björnsdóttir, Simon R. Harris, Vilhjálmur Svansson, Eggert Gunnarsson, Ólöf G. Sigurðardóttir, Kristina Gammeljord, Karen F. Steward, J. Richard Newton, Carl Robinson, Amelia R. L. Charbonneau, Julian Parkhill, Matthew T. G. Holden, Andrew S. Waller

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Iceland is free of the major infectious diseases of horses. However, in 2010 an epidemic of respiratory disease of unknown cause spread through the country's native horse population of 77,000. Microbiological investigations ruled out known viral agents but identified the opportunistic pathogen Streptococcus equi subsp. zooepidemicus (S. zooepidemicus) in diseased animals. We sequenced the genomes of 257 isolates of S. zooepidemicus to differentiate epidemic from endemic strains. We found that although multiple endemic clones of S. zooepidemicus were present, one particular clone, sequence type 209 (ST209), was likely to have been responsible for the epidemic. Concurrent with the epidemic, ST209 was also recovered from a human case of septicemia, highlighting the pathogenic potential of this strain. Epidemiological investigation revealed that the incursion of this strain into one training yard during February 2010 provided a nidus for the infection of multiple horses that then transmitted the strain to farms throughout Iceland. This study represents the first time that whole-genome sequencing has been used to investigate an epidemic on a national scale to identify the likely causative agent and the link to an associated zoonotic infection. Our data highlight the importance of national biosecurity to protect vulnerable populations of animals and also demonstrate the potential impact of S. zooepidemicus transmission to other animals, including humans.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00826-17
Number of pages13
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2017


  • Icelandic horse
  • Streptococcus zooepedemicus
  • Epidemiology
  • Genome analysis
  • Respiratory pathogens
  • Zoonotic infections


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