As the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to fade into the annals of history, scientists are trying to identify which pathogen will pose the next large-scale threat to humanity.
Instead of a resurgence of COVID or bird flu, it could be the little-known but dreaded Langya virus, which shares similarities with COVID, according to a new paper published this month in the journal. Communication Nature.
As with COVID initially, the virus causes fever and severe respiratory symptoms, and can lead to fatal pneumonia. Like COVID, it was first identified in humans in China – last year, when it infected 35 farmers and other residents, likely due to contact with emissions.
This wasn’t the first time a Henipavirus – the family to which Langya belongs – has spread to people, and it won’t be the last, researchers warn.
Dr Ariel Isaacs, a researcher at the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences at the University of Queensland in Australia, said humanity is at an “important moment” with the virus genus and can “expect to more animal-to-human spread events.” .”
“It’s important that we understand the inner workings of these emerging viruses,” he said in a press release about the research.
Here’s what we know about the relatively new (to humans) virus with the potential to cause a global health emergency and bearing uncanny similarities to the latest human coronavirus.
What are Henipaviruses?
Henipaviruses are the deadliest paramyxoviruses, killing around 70% of those who contract them. The first two Henipaviruses identified in humans were Nipah virus, first observed in pigs in Malaysia and Singapore in the late 1980s, and Hendra virus, first observed in racehorses and humans in Australia in 1994.
According to the World Organization for Animal Health, pigs, fruit bats, cats, dogs, horses and humans are natural carriers of Henipavirus.
So far, Hendra virus cases have been limited to Australia. Nipah, however, posed a bigger problem. Other outbreaks in Bangladesh and India in the early 2000s – caused by a different strain of the virus than initially seen – are believed to have occurred due to the consumption of fruit or fruit products such as date palm juice. raw “contaminated with the urine or saliva of infected fruit bats,” according to the World Health Organization. Outbreaks occur almost every year in Bangladesh, according to the authors of the new paper.
More worryingly, transmission of Nipah has been reported between humans, among family members and caregivers of sick people, the authors wrote. (Bird flu has so far failed to become a global health problem due to its inability to transmit effectively between humans.)
Hendra and Nipah viruses can present with respiratory illness and severe flu-like symptoms, and can progress to encephalitis – inflammation of the brain – along with other neurological symptoms and death.
In addition, new Henipaviruses are regularly discovered in animals, including Cedar virus in fruit bats in Australia, Ghana virus in bats in Africa, Gamak & Daeryong viruses in shrews in Korea, and Mòjiāng in rats in China. It is suspected that the Ghana virus can spread to humans, as is the case with the Nipah, Hendra and Langya viruses, according to the authors. The Mòjiāng virus is also said to have infected people.
The ability of Henipaviruses to “infect a wide range of hosts and produce disease with significant mortality in humans has made it a public health concern”, according to a note published by the WHO in 2016.
How does Langya virus compare to other Henipaviruses?
Langya is most closely related to the Mòjiāng virus, which has symptoms strikingly similar to those of the first COVID-19, according to the authors. As COVID initially did, Langya and Mòjiāng are known to cause severe pneumonia. And Mòjiāng tends to cause ground-glass opacities on lung X-rays in infected people, as well as the often fatal severe acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) – two other similarities to the initial COVID-19, according to an article by 2020 in Frontiers in public health.
The Mòjiāng virus was discovered in 2012, when it reportedly sickened six miners and killed three who had come into contact with bats at the Tongguan mine shaft in Mòjiāng, China. A coronavirus closely related to COVID-19 was found in the same mine shaft, the authors of the 2020 paper noted, raising more questions than answers, given the similar presentation of the two viruses.
Is there a vaccine or treatment for Langya virus or other Henipaviruses?
Not for the moment. The group of viruses is on the WHO’s list of diseases for which it prioritizes research into vaccines and therapeutics. This is partly because of the high fatality rate of viruses, as well as the fact that the fruit bats that harbor them migrate globally, facilitating wide spread.
A Hendra virus vaccine is currently available for animals, and trials of a similar vaccine are underway in humans, according to the authors. A Hendra virus vaccine is not likely to work on Langya, the authors noted. It’s also unlikely to work against Mòjiāng, who looks more like Langya than Hendra, they added.
Isaacs and his team plan to continue their work on developing broad-spectrum vaccines capable of warding off Henipaviruses in humans.
“These are viruses that can cause serious illness and can spiral out of control if we are not properly prepared,” said Dr. Daniel Watterson, another researcher at the University of Washington’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences. Queensland and author. on paper, said in the press release.
“We have seen with COVID-19 how unprepared the world is for a widespread viral outbreak, and we want to be better equipped for the next outbreak.”
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com