- Researchers discovered a new virus in eastern China spread through shrew animals.
- So far, 35 people have tested positive for the “Langya” virus and exhibited symptoms such as running a fever, coughing, and headache.
- The Langya virus has not caused fatalities in any of the patients who contracted the virus.
- Researchers are unsure whether human-to-human transmission is possible with the Langya virus and plan to continue monitoring the situation.
Less than three years after the discovery of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, researchers found another virus that spreads from animals to humans. The findings appear in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The Langya virus was detected in nearly three dozen people in the provinces of Shandong and Henan in the eastern parts of the country.
Langya: A zoonotic virus
Zoonotic diseases occur when animals spread germs to humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), zoonotic diseases “are caused by harmful germs like viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi.”
Some of the more well-known types of zoonotic viruses include the West Nile virus and rabies.
Additionally, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, is zoonotic. Scientists found that animal-to-human transmissions took place after SARS-CoV-2 emerged. Since late 2019, the virus has claimed more than 6 million lives.
The new zoonotic virus researchers discovered in China is the Langya virus, which belongs to the henipavirus genus.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert, based in San Francisco, spoke with Medical News Today and offered some insight into henipaviruses.
“A family of viruses [has] been classified in the genus called henipavirus, and these are RNA viruses which occasionally cause illness in humans and cross over into humans from animals such as bats or pigs,” Dr. Gandhi explained.
Dr. Gandhi is a professor of Medicine and Associate Division Chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at the University of California San Francisco.
Before discovering the Langya virus, researchers had identified five forms of henipaviruses. Of the five, CDC describes Hendra virus and Nipah virus as being “highly virulent emerging pathogens that cause outbreaks in humans and are associated with high case-fatality ratio.”
Langya virus discovery
As part of a program to monitor people who exhibited fevers after contact with animals, officials detected the first person with the Langya virus toward the end of 2018.
Using a throat swab sample, researchers discovered the new virus “by means of metagenomic analysis and subsequent virus isolation.”
After identifying the Langya virus, researchers monitored samples from patients with fevers following animal exposure for the next 2 years. During that time, they detected the Langya virus in an additional 34 individuals.
To determine which animal species was the source of the virus, scientists tested multiple animals for the presence of the Langya virus. They found evidence of the virus in goats and dogs, but the animal that was the primary source of the Langya virus was the shrew.
After finding the virus present in 27% of shrew samples, the authors write that the discovery “suggests that the shrew may be a natural reservoir of [the Langya virus].”
Shrews, which look similar to mice but are an entirely different species, are small mammals found worldwide. Shrews have spread diseases in the past, including mammarenavirus and hantavirus.
Symptoms of Langya virus
Some of the symptoms of the Langya virus include the following:
Of the symptoms patients with the Langya virus experienced, fever was the most prevalent, with 100% of the patients presenting with fever. Roughly half of the patients experienced fatigue, cough, and loss of appetite.
Also, approximately one-third of patients with the Langya virus had impaired liver functioning, and 8% of the patients experienced impaired kidney functioning.
Do people spread Langya?
The researchers have not found evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus at this point.
They found that none of the patients who contracted Langya virus caught it from each other. Additionally, none of them spread it to others in their households.
This finding does not necessarily mean human-to-human transmissions are not happening. The researchers pointed out that their sample size was too small to be certain at this point.
“Contact tracing of 9 patients with 15 close contact family members revealed no close-contact LayV transmission, but our sample size was too small to determine the status of human-to-human transmission,” the authors wrote.
Researchers plan to continue monitoring for the Langya virus, and Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control reportedly plans to develop testing for the Langya virus.
Should people be worried?
“This is a newly-described virus in humans and more study is needed,” said Dr. Gandhi. “However, given that there was no human-to-human transmission, this virus is unlikely to be a major threat to the population and can hopefully be contained readily (by minimizing contact with the animal species).”
“Moreover, we know from other viruses in this same family that come from zoonotic or animal transmission that outbreaks are very limited and can be avoided by minimizing animal contact,” Dr. Gandhi continued. “So this virus is unlikely to have a major impact on human populations (very different from SARS-CoV-2) but must be watched.”
Dr. Armand Balboni, a former staff officer at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and currently the CEO of Appili Therapeutics, also spoke with MNT about the Langya virus.
Dr. Balboni pointed out that the new virus is not similar in function to COVID-19, but says “we should always remain vigilant about any new zoonotic diseases.”
“While other related henipaviruses have caused serious illness and death, the evidence suggests that the Langya virus merely causes flu-like symptoms for those infected,” said Dr. Balboni.
While the Langya virus has not caused any fatalities, Dr. Balboni mentioned that “as we have learned from COVID-19, viruses can mutate very quickly, and human behavior often drives how viral outbreaks behave. That’s why it’s critical to be paying attention to this outbreak now and mitigating the spread of the virus.”
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