Recent outbreaks of Zika Virus (ZIKV) infection and associated microcephaly has raised multiple scientific questions.
The close antigenic relatedness between flaviviruses makes diagnosis of specific infection difficult. This relatedness also raises the potential of Antibody Dependent Enhancement (ADE) via cross reactive antibodies to flaviviruses like West Nile Virus (WNV) and Dengue Virus (DENV). Asymptomatic WNV infections are endemic throughout the US creating a large proportion of the population that is seropositive for WNV antibodies. Whether these sero-positive individuals potentially carry ZIKV enhancing antibodies remains unknown.
Serum samples obtained from human subjects with symptomatic or asymptomatic WNV infection from a WNV endemic region in Texas were tested for their ability to enhance or neutralize ZIKV infection. Sero-surveillance data demonstrated a ~ 7% prevalence for WNV antibodies in the population. Sera from both symptomatic and asymptomatic WNV seropositive donors effectively neutralized WNV and to some extent DENV infection. Interestingly, WNV+ sera failed to inhibit ZIKV while significantly enhancing infection. Conversely, ZIKV specific sera effectively neutralized ZIKV, with ADE only evident at lower concentrations. The enhancement of ZIKV via WNV antibody positive sera was likely due to non-neutralizing Envelope (E) antibodies as seen with monoclonal ZIKV E antibodies.
Overall, our findings suggest that WNV antibodies in the sera significantly enhance ZIKV infection in Fc receptor positive cells with limited neutralization activity. Further studies in more relevant models of ADE will be needed to confirm the relevance of these findings in vivo.