Just as COVID-19 began life as a mysterious virus that jumped from animal to human, it’s only natural that the public might view other emerging zoonotic viruses with the same wariness. This may explain the recent attention to a new outbreak of Langya virus in China which has already infected 35 people. Could this lead to another global pandemic?
Fortunately, that’s highly unlikely, experts say. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the virus isn’t a threat, as recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that there were 35 infections in two provinces in eastern China in 2021.
Yet one reason not to be alarmed is, quite simply, that none of these patients died. Another is the nature of the Langya virus itself: it does not appear to have spread through human-to-human contact, and infected patients have all had close contact with animals such as fruit bats and shrews, which were probably the original hosts.
“There are clearly repeated transmission events from what appears to be a common reservoir in shrews,” vaughn cooper, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Pittsburgh, told NBC News. “The team did a very good job of evaluating the alternatives and finding this as the most likely explanation.”
Yet, although this virus does not appear to pose a global threat, it is part of a classification of viruses with a long and ugly history. They are known as henipaviruses.
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Henipaviruses are negative-strand RNA viruses commonly found in mammals such as shrews and fruit bats. Some henipaviruses are very dangerous; the Nipah virus, for example, has a mortality rate between 40% and 75%. In addition to causing fever, headache, cough, and other flu-like symptoms, the Nipah virus can cause serious side effects like brain swelling (encephalitis), seizures, and even comas. Then there is the Hendra virus which has a 57% case fatality rate for the humans it infects, bringing with it symptoms it can, as with the Nipah virus, look like the flu – and, likewise, can lead to brain swelling and death.
While the Langya virus does not appear to be a global threat, other henipaviruses pose major problems regionally. A February article in the scientific journal PLOS: Neglected Tropical Diseases had this observation about the Nipah virus (NiV).
“Malaysia (43%), Bangladesh (42%) and India (15%) account for all incident cases of human NiV infections globally,” the authors explained. “Besides the human catastrophe of high morbidity and mortality rates during documented disease outbreaks, the economic impact is enormous. After the first outbreak of NiV in 1999, the Malaysian pig industry and related sectors suffered enormous damage , i.e. 1.1 million pigs were slaughtered, which cost around $66.8 million with a total decline in the Malaysian economy of around 30% during this period.”
The authors also said global spread could come from henipaviruses that can spread through person-to-person transmission, such as NiV.
“The ability of NiV to spread in hospital settings between staff and patients was demonstrated in a 2001 outbreak in Siliguri, India, which affected 66 people,” the authors wrote. “The outbreak originated from an unidentified patient admitted to Siliguri District Hospital who infected 11 people. Thus, the ability of NiV to spread from patients to nursing staff raised concerns that the virus could spread adapt to more efficient human-to-human transmission.”
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