Emerging infectious diseases are often the result of a host shift, where the pathogen originates from a different host species. Virulence—the harm a pathogen does to its host—can be extremely high following a host shift (for example Ebola, HIV, and SARs), while other host shifts may go undetected as they cause few symptoms in the new host. Here we examine how virulence varies across host species by carrying out a large cross infection experiment using 48 species of Drosophilidae and an RNA virus. Host shifts resulted in dramatic variation in virulence, with benign infections in some species and rapid death in others. The change in virulence was highly predictable from the host phylogeny, with hosts clustering together in distinct clades displaying high or low virulence. High levels of virulence are associated with high viral loads, and this may determine the transmission rate of the virus.