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August 11, 2022

A new virus has been discovered in China—here's what you need to know

Daily Briefing

    A new virus, named the Langya henipavirus, has infected 35 people in two Chinese provinces, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. And while the virus comes from a dangerous family of viruses, experts say there's no reason to worry about Langya virus yet.

    Details on the new virus

    The virus was first discovered in late 2018 when a farmer in the Shandong province sought treatment for a fever. Over a two-year period following that discovery, researchers have identified 34 other people who were infected with Langya virus in Shandong and the neighboring Henan province.

    Of the 35 patients, 26 were infected only with Langya virus. All 26 people not co-infected with another pathogen reported a fever while about half reported fatigue, a decreased white blood cell count, and a cough. Some reported more serious symptoms, including decreased kidney and liver functions. None of the patients died.

    In the study, researchers looked at samples of the virus in the 35 patients and discovered the virus is part of the henipavirus family, a family that includes some potentially dangerous viruses like the Nipah virus, which has a 40% to 75% fatality rate, NBC News reports.

    The researchers reported they found no evidence that Langya virus transmitted between people. They found by testing 25 small wild animal species for the virus that the virus' genetic material was "predominantly detected" in shrews, suggesting small mammals are a "natural reservoir" for Langya virus.

    What experts are saying

    Experts say that, while Langya virus comes from a family of some dangerous viruses, there's no reason to worry about this specific virus yet, given that it hasn't caused any deaths and that there's no evidence it can transmit person-to-person. Langya appears to be causing sporadic infections, and it is most likely passed from animals to people.

    "In order to really be something we should be worried about … it's got to be able to transmit between people," Emily Gurley, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said. "There's no evidence from this report that person-to-person transmission is happening."

    Peter John Hudson, a biology professor at Penn State University, said Langya virus looks different than the deadly Nipah and Hendra viruses from the same family. "It's closely associated with the henipaviruses, but it might not even be in the family," he said.

    Francois Balloux, a computational systems biology professor at University College London, said Langya virus doesn't "look like a repeat of Covid-19 at all," adding that the virus is significantly less lethal than other viruses in the henipavirus family and that Langya virus "probably doesn't transmit easily from human to human."

    However, Balloux noted the discovery serves as "yet another reminder of the looming threat caused by the many pathogens circulating in populations of wild and domestic animals that have the potential to infect humans."

    While the new discovery will be informative to scientists, Paul Duprex, a virologist and director of the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh, said people "shouldn't go into panic mode every time there's a new virus that's discovered."

    "We have primate brains, for the most part, and there are only a few things we can really care about in life," Gurley said. "I don't think this should make the list." (Cheng, Washington Post, 8/10; Cortez, Bloomberg, 8/9; Bendix, NBC News, 8/10; Rodriguez, USA Today, 8/10)

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