An international team of researchers from China, Singapore and Australia recently identified a new virus that was likely transmitted from animals to humans, another potential zoonotic spread in China. The Langya virus was first detected in the northeastern provinces of Shandong and Henan in late 2018, but was only officially identified and described by scientists last week in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Langya is a genipavirus that causes symptoms such as fever, cough, low white blood cells, fatigue, muscle pain, loss of appetite, and, in rare cases, kidney and liver damage.
The first sample of the Langya virus was found in late 2018 in a farmer in China’s Shandong province who sought medical attention for a fever. Over the next two years, 34 more infected people were found in Shandong and neighboring Henan province. Genetic sequencing of the samples showed that the pathogen belongs to the henipavirus family, in which there are five other known viruses. Two of these, the Hendra and Nipah viruses, are extremely virulent, resulting in high mortality. Fortunately, all of Langa’s known patients survived.
By testing 25 species of small wildlife for the virus, the scientists found its genetic material predominantly in shrews, a species of small insect-eating mammals, meaning they may act as a “natural reservoir” for the Langya virus. Observation of the disease showed no sources of infection common to infected people and no interaction between them, suggesting that human infection could have occurred in a “sporadic” manner, as a result of repeated transmission of the virus from shrews. However, although scientists have not yet found any evidence that Langia virus can be transmitted between people, this may be due to the very small sample size.
According to François Balloux, professor in the Department of Computational Systems Biology at University College London, even if the Langya virus “is not at all like a recurrence of Covid-19” and “probably does not spread easily from person to person”, it should nevertheless be considered as “another reminder of the looming threat posed by the myriad of pathogens circulating in wild and domestic animal populations that have the potential to infect humans.”
Urgent research is needed to clarify the routes of transmission of this virus to ensure that any potential human-to-human transmission of the virus is detected – and stopped – as early as possible, before a new epidemic breaks out.