A virus was found to be associated with a severe disease affecting rabbits on a farm near Anchorage, Alaska. Extracts from the skin of infected rabbits produced syncytia and cell lysis in cultured rabbit skin, rabbit kidney, and Vero cells. Examination of the infectious agent by electron microscopy revealed an icosahedral nucleocapsid surrounded by an envelope with a diameter of about 120 nm, suggesting that it was a herpesvirus. The viral genome was determined to be composed of double-stranded DNA of 120-130 kbp. PCR using degenerate primers to conserved herpesvirus genes was used to amplify sequences from purified viral DNA. Sequencing of these products allowed the design of specific primers so that complete sequence data for a number of genes could be determined. Analysis of these data indicated that the virus is most closely related to bovine herpesvirus 2. The next most closely related viruses are human herpesviruses 1 and 2, and a number of cercopithecine herpesviruses. Experimental exposure of domestic rabbits to the isolate resulted in severe clinical disease and necrosis in the spleen and lymph node. In addition, viral DNA was identified in a variety of tissues by PCR, consistent with a systemic infection. Taken together, these data suggest that this virus is highly pathogenic for domestic rabbits and belongs to the family Herpesviridae, subfamily Alphaherpesvirinae, genus Simplexvirus.
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