A Newly Discovered Virus Has Sickened Dozens in China—How Worried Should You Be?

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Scientists in China have found a new virus that can be natively carried by shrews. It has been making people sick since 2018.

The researchers laid out their findings in a paper published last week in the New England of Journal of Medicine. According to their report, the virus was first identified via a throat swab collected from a patient as part of an active disease surveillance program that tests people with fever who have had recent exposure to animals. Afterward, the same virus was found in 35 cases in which people with reported illness were acutely infected with the same unknown virus between late 2018 and early 2021. All of these cases were located around the Shandon and Henan provinces in eastern China. The team decided to call their discovery the Langya virus (LayV).

“The case for causation of human illness with this virus—I think it’s pretty strong,” Emily Gurley, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has studied similar viruses, told.

The virus belongs to the genus henipavirus. The genus is nestled within the larger family Paramyxoviridae, which has many members that cause human diseases, such as measles and mumps.

Henipaviruses are most abundantly found in bats, which can and have spread new infectious diseases to humans, and many of these henipaviruses seem to possess the potential ability to spill into other species, humans included, Lee said.

The virus was found in 27% of wild shrews, suggesting that they may be its predominant hosts. The original Mòji?ng virus is believed to have come from rodents, which shrews are not, but according to Lee, there have been other Mòji?ng-like viruses found in samples collected from shrew roadkill.

Out of all these related viruses, Nipah has been the most concerning to date, since it’s routinely caused outbreaks in parts of Asia (including last year), has a fatality rate as high as 100%, and has occasionally spread from human to human. By contrast, the cases identified with Langya virus so far have had no clear connection to one another, and there have been no reports of close contacts later catching the infection.

Given these data points, Lee said, “my feeling is that the danger of transmission is low.”

Similarly, Gurley says that unless you’re living and spending plenty of time with shrews in these areas, you shouldn’t be concerned about Langya virus.

“I think the takeaway should be that it’s good people are doing this type of research to understand what’s happening around us. Because unless we go looking, we’ll never really know,” Gurley said. “This is how you can pick up something early so that you can do something about it if you start seeing person-to-person transmission.”

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