Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) from 10 woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV)-infected wood-chucks were examined for the presence of WHV surface (WHs) and core (WHc) antigens (WHsAg and WHcAg) by cytofluorometry using fluorescein isothiocyanate-conjugated anti-WHs and anti-HBc-purified immunoglobulins from woodchuck and human sera. The presence of viral DNA and RNA was detected in the serum and PBMCs from the same blood samples by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) with two primer sets located in the S and C genes of the WHV genome. Seven animals were found positive for both WHsAg and WHcAg on the surface of PBMCs: four WHV-chronic carriers, two WHsAg-positive animals with acute WHV infection, and one woodchuck which was bled during the incubation phase of WHV infection and which became WHsAg-positive only 1 month later. Sixteen to 71% of the studied leukocyte population expressed WHsAg with a low density of expression whereas 7 to 72% expressed WHcAg with a high density of expression. Only two cases were positive for WHsAg without WHcAg on PBMCs, one WHV chronic carrier and one anti-WHs-positive animal. All woodchucks positive for WHcAg and/or WHsAg by cytofluorometry were positive also for WHV DNA and RNA in PBMCs by PCR. The tenth animal was found negative for both viral antigens as well as for WHV DNA and RNA in PBMCs despite the presence of persistent viral DNA in the serum as detected by PCR. Five healthy woodchucks devoid of WHV serological markers served as negative controls. These results obtained with a novel approach further confirm, in the wood chuck model, that a significant proportion of PBMCs are probably permissive for WHV replication. The possible immunopathogenic implications of the phenomenon are discussed.


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