Avian infectious bronchitis virus (IBV) causes a highly contagious and economically significant disease in chickens. Establishment of a carrier state in IBV infection and the potential for the persistent virus to undergo mutations and recombination in chicken tissues have important consequences for disease management. Nevertheless, whether chickens can maintain persistent IBV infection in the absence of reinfection from exogenous sources or the presence of antibody in the host can modulate virus persistence remains unclear. Indeed, whether or not IBV genome can undergo genetic changes during in vivo infection has not been demonstrated experimentally.
In the present study, IBV shedding and tissue persistence were monitored in individual chickens maintained under strict isolation that precluded reinfection from exogenous sources. In the first of two experiments, intranasal exposure of 6-wk-old antibody-free chickens to IBV vaccine virus resulted in intermittent shedding of the virus from both trachea and cloaca of individual birds for up to 63 days. Also, the virus was recovered from the internal organs (spleen, gonad, kidney, lung, cecal tonsil, and cloacal bursa) of six of eight birds killed at various intervals between 27 and 163 days postinoculation (DPI). In the second experiment, IBV exposure of 1-day-old maternal antibody–positive chicks led to periodic virus shedding from the trachea and cloaca in all chickens until 77 days; however, internal organs (lungs and kidneys) of only one of seven birds (killed at 175 DPI) were virus positive, suggesting that presence of antibody at the time of infection protects internal organs from IBV infection. When the lung and kidney isolates of IBV from the latter experiment were compared with the parent-vaccine virus, no changes in their antigenicity, tissue tropism, or the nucleotide sequence of the S1 glycoprotein gene were observed. These findings indicate that, unlike the mammalian coronaviruses, propensity for frequent genetic change may not be inherent in the IBV genome.