Going viral: the viruses that grabbed our attention in 2022

Newsmakers love to see their work go viral. At Cosmos, we write about things going viral every week.

The SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the news cycle for three years, but other pathogens have been quietly doing their bit to give headline-writers more attention-grabbing material.

So what pathogens sparked interest in 2022, and do we even need to worry about them?

Mpox: New name for an old disease

The virus formerly known as Monkeypox recently jumped over into humans with cases spreading across the globe and triggering health authorities to start rolling out vaccination programs to vulnerable groups.

So, why the name change?

Unfortunately – as shown with viruses like COVID-19 – original names can stigmatise or lead to violence against cultural or geographic groups, minorities and even source species.

In this case, the World Health Organization’s decision to rebrand the virus as ‘mpox’ came in response to the Global North using images of Black and African peoples to portray the virus, while anti-gay slurs were reported to be on the rise in relation to the virus.

So mpox is the new name for the disease (though the UN will use it in conjunction with the old moniker for a year to help transition public awareness).

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Hendra virus which is also a hanipavirus similar to langya / layv
Hendra virus which is also a hanipavirus similar to Langya / LayV – Credit: Electron Microscopy Unit, Australian Animal Health Laboratory, CSIRO

LayV: Shrewd invader, but is it going to take off?

It must be hard being an animal at the centre of a zoonotic spillover – especially one in China – in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately for shrews – a tiny mammal related to hedgehogs and moles – they’re believed to be the culprit behind what is now known as Langya henipavirus (or LayV) causing illness in humans near China’s Shandong and Henan provinces.

This group of viruses includes others that cause Hendra and Nipahvirus – nasty stuff.

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Four pictures of lesions on a child's body. They are numerous and very raised and red.
Fleshy vesicular lesions during and after Tomato Flu healing. Credit: Tang et al., The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 2022

Tomato Flu: No need to see red over this headline-grabber

Before you give up on the red refrigerator staple, don’t worry, you can’t get this unfortunately-named virus by eating one.

This red, blistering virus was detected in Kerala, India, in August and had headline writers running wild.

Key points: It’s rare, it’s not life-threatening, and it’s not very ‘new’ either.

Rather, it’s a variant of the endemic hand, foot and mouth disease. 

So is it something the world needs to worry about? Probably not, given recovery appears to take place within two weeks of infection, but it does raise questions of how viruses are reported in a post-COVID world.

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Electron microscope image of poliovirus
Polio / Credit: Dr Jason A Roberts, Head of Electron Microscopy and Structural Virology at The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory, Doherty Institute

Polio is back! Sort of.

Polio’s back! Well, not quite, but for a period in mid-2022, news surfaced of polio outbreaks in nations where the virus is officially eradicated.

How is that possible?

Well a combination of low vaccination rates in some communities of New York state, combined with circulating ‘vaccine-derived’ versions of the virus, created a potentially lethal combination for unvaccinated people.

That’s a pretty fair effort from a virus that is currently prevalent in only Afghanistan and Pakistan. We got to the bottom of how zombie polio can return in places like the US, UK and Israel, and whether there’s a risk for Australia.

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Discovering a new way to target rabies

With a 100% fatality rate if left untreated, rabies is one virus you don’t want to get.

It kills more than 50,000 people annually, even despite the availability of many highly effective vaccines.

Unfortunately, these inoculations don’t last forever. But that might be about to change, thanks to research out of the United States this year which may have identified new targets on the virus’s often-changing glycoprotein thanks to high-resolution imaging techniques.

That’s good news for people who want fewer rabies jabs, as these new targets may help vaccine-makers create longer-lasting shots.

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