Serological prevalence and molecular characterization of hepatitis E virus in imported pigs in Singapore (2000-2019).
Hepatitis E is a significant liver disease caused by infection with hepatitis E virus (HEV). The risk factors for hepatitis E in developed countries include blood transfusion and ingestion of undercooked meat or meat products derived from HEV-infected animals. Since 2000, there has been increased human hepatitis E incidence reported in Singapore. Although the causes of this increase have not been established, several studies have linked zoonotic HEV infections in humans to pork consumption. It is therefore important to closely monitor the presence of HEV in food sources for the prevalence and virulence. In this study, we demonstrated the presence of HEV in pigs imported into Singapore for consumption through serological and molecular investigation of live pig and post-slaughter samples collected between 2000 and 2019. Among imported pigs, anti-HEV antibody prevalence remained at a level around 35% until 2017, with a statistically significant increase in 2018. HEV RNA was detected in 8.40% (34/405) of the faecal samples, indicative of an active infection in the pigs. HEV RNA was also detected in 6.67% (4/60) of liver samples obtained post-slaughter. We also report the development of an RT-PCR-based next-generation sequencing (NGS) method that enabled full sequencing of the HEV genome in HEV RNA-positive samples in a relatively short span of time. Phylogenetic analysis identified the HEV in one of the imported pigs (HEV-S28) as genotype 3a, which clustered together with the human HEV strains previously identified in Singapore. We found that the HEV-S28 strain exhibited amino acid substitutions that are associated with reduced HEV replication efficiency. The increase in anti-HEV seroprevalence in the pig population from 2018 is worth further exploration. We will continue to monitor the prevalent HEV strains and assess the genetic diversity of HEV in the imported pigs to confirm the potential association with human infections.