Infection with wild-type (WT) measles virus (MeV) is an important cause of childhood mortality that leads to lifelong protective immunity in survivors. WT MeV and the live-attenuated MeV used in the measles vaccine (LAMV) are antigenically similar, but the determinants of attenuation are unknown, and protective immunity induced by LAMV is less robust than that induced by WT MeV. To identify factors that contribute to these differences, we compared virologic and immunologic responses after respiratory infection of rhesus macaques with WT MeV or LAMV. In infected macaques, WT MeV replicated efficiently in B and T lymphocytes with spreading throughout lymphoid tissues resulting in prolonged persistence of viral RNA. In contrast, LAMV replicated efficiently in the respiratory tract but displayed limited spread to lymphoid tissue or peripheral blood mononuclear cells. In vitro, WT MeV and LAMV replicated similarly in macaque primary respiratory epithelial cells and human lymphocytes, but LAMV-infected lymphocytes produced little virus. Plasma concentrations of interleukin-1β (IL-1β), IL-12, interferon-γ (IFN-γ), CCL2, CCL11, CXCL9, and CXCL11 increased in macaques after WT MeV but not LAMV infection. WT MeV infection induced more protective neutralizing, hemagglutinin-specific antibodies and bone marrow plasma cells than did LAMV infection, although numbers of MeV-specific IFN-γ– and IL-4–producing T cells were comparable. Therefore, MeV attenuation may involve altered viral replication in lymphoid tissue that limited spread and decreased the host antibody response, suggesting a link between lifelong protective immunity and the ability of WT MeV, but not LAMV, to spread in lymphocytes.
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