A zoonotic spillover appears likely in the case of a new virus dubbed Langya henipavirus (LayV) detected in dozens of people in China recently.
Correspondence published in the New England Journal of Medicine by researchers from China, Singapore and Australia says the virus had been identified in 35 patients in China’s Shandong and Henan provinces since 2018, with no current indication of human-to-human transmission.
LayV is part of the Paramyxoviridae virus family, which includes the pathogens that cause measles, mumps and other respiratory diseases. Henipaviruses also include the deadly Hendra virus discovered in Queensland in 1994.
Like many viruses, LayV appears to have been transmitted to humans from an animal source, with shrews identified as the virus’ likely reservoir, although there were cases of domestic dogs and goats found with the pathogen.
There are over 385 species of shrew, which despite their often rodent-like appearance belong to the same order of animals as hedgehogs and moles. Some species have the rare characteristics of being venomous and capable of echolocation (commonly associated with bats).
There have been no reported deaths from the virus. Symptoms include fever (all cases) fatigue, cough and anorexia (at least half of cases), myalgia, nausea, headache and vomiting.
Australian National University infectious disease specialist Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake says the emergence of LayV is part of an ongoing trend of pathogens jumping from animals to humans as evidenced by the current COVID-19 pandemic, and recent global spread of monkeypox.
“The announcement of another new infection is not surprising,” says Senanayake.
“Over the last five decades, there have been around fifty new infections described. The vast majority, like LayV, monkeypox and COVID-19 are viruses that have jumped from the animal to the human world.
“Regarding this infection, it is still early days but there are some reassuring signs, namely that there haven’t been deaths or many serious illnesses from it.
“The reason to be vigilant about this virus though is that it is a henipavirus, which comes from the same family as Hendra and Nipah, both of which have caused deaths in humans. Nipah has also been associated with person-to-person transmission.”
LayV – what you need to know
- A new zoonotic (animal-to-human) virus has been reported in northern China.
- It’s part of the viral family Paramyxoviridae, which includes the Hendra and Nipah viruses
- There are no fatalities or cases of human-to-human transmission
- Fever is the most common symptom
Dr Nick Fountain-Jones from the University of Tasmania says the emergence of new diseases highlights the importance of viral surveillance programs detecting new pathogens.
“These findings show how incredibly important viral surveillance is,” Fountain-Jones says.
“While it is still early days, the authors suggest that there is no evidence yet for human-to-human transmission, but more data will help further rule this out.
“This group of viruses pose a constant and real threat to humans and livestock, and viruses like LayV need to be monitored carefully. Early detection, identification of potential reservoir hosts and contact tracing as was done in this study are crucial steps to prevent the next pandemic.”
Matthew Agius is a science writer for Cosmos Magazine.
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