35 people have been infected by the Langya henipavirus, a new zoonotic illness that affects shrews in China.
Is it worthwhile to panic? If it begins to spread among people, it is.
People have been on high alert for viruses that are transmitted from animals to humans ever since the coronavirus pandemic began. And there’s good cause for it: the prevalence of zoonotic viruses is rising.
A new “henipavirus” had been discovered in 35 individuals between 2018 and 2021, according to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine at the beginning of August by scientists from the Beijing Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology.
The infection, Langya henipavirus, was probably transmitted to people by the shrew, a mouse-like creature, according to researchers.
Scientists refer to the shrew as the reservoir host in this instance since it is the primary carrier of the virus. In addition to anorexia, myalgia, and nausea, patients also complained of fever, weariness, and coughing.
According to the two-page paper, the researchers found no evidence of human-to-human transmission. As a result, they conclude that the only people who are actually at danger are those who have frequent and close contact with shrews. Infected patients were almost exclusively farmers in the Chinese regions of Shandong and Henan.
“The threat is not great unless you are in contact with the reservoir host, or with an intermediate animal host that is in touch with them,” James Wood, the head of the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge, told DW. “However, the virus is closely related to others that have a high case fatality in humans, and so general concern and care is warranted,” Wood said.
Zoonotic diseases are widespread; according to estimates, approximately 60% of infectious diseases that are known to affect humans can be contracted from other animals, and 75% of newly discovered or developing infectious diseases in humans are caused by zoonosis.
Some zoonotic illnesses are more serious even though many only result in minor infections. The majority of the world’s widespread epidemics, including those involving the coronavirus, Ebola, MERS, and Zika virus, have been brought on by the spread of zoonotic viruses. However, the Langya henipavirus is not known to transmit from person to person, therefore it might not present that kind of risk.
The Langya henipavirus was not found in any of the nine patients’ close connections who were screened by researchers in China.
In the recent study, none of the individual instances were linked in a way that suggested they had contracted the disease from one another. Nine patients, as the study’s authors pointed out, isn’t a sufficient sample size to entirely rule out the possibility of human transmission, they added.
It would be “extremely alarming” if person-to-person transmission was discovered, according to Jimmy Whitworth, a global public health expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This is so because the deadly Mojiang henipavirus, which was found in China in 2012, shares genetic traits with Langya henipavirus.
Researchers collected anal swabs from bats, rats, and shrews running around the mine after three miners in China’s Yunnan province inexplicably died of pneumonia in an effort to determine what had happened. Three of the rats tested positive for a virus that was genetically related to other members of the henipavirus family but distinct enough to be identified as its own virus. They named the virus the Mojiang henipavirus after the county where the miners had resided.
The deadly Nipah and Hendra viruses are also members of the henipavirus family, as are the Mojiang and Langya viruses. Animals in China have been found to have the Nipah virus, which can be carried by people. Australian animals has previously been seen to carry the Hendra virus, which cannot be passed from humans to humans.
The lack of human-to-human transmission and the sporadic character of the instances, according to University of Texas scientist Nikolaos Vasilakis, suggest that there is likely little concern to the broader public.
However, Vasilakis noted that the data set was quite limited and that additional study and surveillance were required.
“Anytime that any of these emerging viruses are detected in the human population, it’s a matter of concern,” Vasilakis said. “Not all of them will rise to pandemic proportions. But the initial detection should always be taken with adequate caution and warning.”