Recent studies have reported and provided nucleotide sequence data from divergent isolates of hepatitis E virus (HEV), including isolates from North America and Africa. Sera were investigated from 29 Chinese patients with a diagnosis of acute hepatitis and who were negative for hepatitis viruses A-E by serology (HEV was excluded by testing for IgG antibody only). To determine whether some patients were infected with HEV but had yet to seroconvert to antibody positivity, RT-PCR was carried out with primers designed within conserved sequences of the HEV open reading frame (ORF) 1 and ORF2 regions. Fifteen patients were found to harbour sequences related to HEV. Analysis of the HEV products revealed that nucleotide sequences from nine of the sera closely matched Burmese-like HEV sequences (more than 92% nucleotide identity across ORF1 and 88% in ORF2). The remaining six HEV isolates were similar to each other but divergent from all other known HEV sequences (74 to 83% nucleotide identity in ORF1 or ORF2). Phylogenetic analysis suggests that the six divergent isolates represent a fourth genotype of HEV, distinct from the previously described Burmese, Mexican and United States variants (genotypes 1, 2 and 3). This novel variant, referred to here as the Chinese genotype (genotype 4), may be responsible for a significant proportion of cases of acute hepatitis in China, as seen by the fact that 40% of the HEV-infected patients in this study were genotype 4 positive.


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