New Langya virus found in China

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An international team of scientists identified a new virus likely to have been transmitted to humans after it first infected animals, in another potential zoonotic spill less than three years into the coronavirus pandemic.

A peer-reviewed study published in the New England Journal of Medicine details the discovery of the Langya virus after it was observed in 35 patient samples collected in two eastern Chinese provinces. The researchers – based in China, Singapore and Australia – found no evidence of the virus being transmitted between humans, citing in part the small sample size available. But they hypothesized that shrews, small mammals that feed on insects, could have hosted the virus before it infected humans.

The first Langya virus sample was discovered in late 2018 from a farmer in Shandong Province seeking treatment for a fever. More than an approximately In Shandong and neighboring Henan, 34 other people were infected over a two-year period, the vast majority of whom were farmers.

Genetic sequencing of the virus then showed that the pathogen is part of the henipavirus family, which has five other known viruses. Two are considered highly virulent and associated with high case-fatality ratios, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But none of the Langya patients died, the study said.

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Of the 35 patients, 26 were found to be only infected with the Langya virus. All 26 had fevers, about half of which showed fatigue, a decreased white blood cell count, and a cough. More serious symptoms include decreased kidney and liver function.

Researchers also tested 25 small wild animal species for the Langya virus. The genetic material was “predominantly detected” in shrews, leading the team to suggest the small mammals are a “natural reservoir” for the virus.

Disease surveillance did not point to sources of exposure common among those infected, nor did they come into close contact, suggesting that human infection may have occurred in a “sporadic” manner, the researchers wrote.

Francois Balloux, a professor of computational systems biology at University College London who was not involved in the study, said the Langya virus doesn’t look like a recurrence of Covid-19 at all. He remarked Twitter that the new virus is much less lethal than other henipaviruses and “probably not easily transmitted from person to person”.

But this discovery serves as “another reminder of the imminent threat posed by the many pathogens circulating in populations of wild and domestic animals that have the potential to infect humans,” Balloux added.

Viruses that pass from animals to humans are not uncommon. About 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are of zoonotic origin, scientists say, and nearly 1.7 million undiscovered viruses may affect mammals and birds. The Hendra and Nipah viruses, two henipaviruses with high mortality rates, can be contracted through close contact with sick horses, pigs and bats.

Scientists studying zoonotic diseases had warned even before the coronavirus pandemic that practices such as unregulated wildlife trade, deforestation and urbanization have brought humans closer to animals, increasing the likelihood of viral spillovers.

Karin Brulliard contributed to this report.

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