A New Mysterious Virus Is Creeping Across China

Although most tick bites are harmless, ticks can sometimes carry nasty pathogens. Ticks are Gabor Tinz/Shutterstock

A mysterious new virus is slowly but surely creeping through rural corners of China. Up until recently, the cause of the illness was not clear, but a new study may have pinned down the culprit: a nasty blood-sucking tick.

Scientists from Foshan University in China’s Guangdong Province have documented the discovery of a previously unknown pathogen, dubbed the “Alongshan virus”.

Reporting in the New England Journal of Medicine, their discovery is based on a sample of the virus taken from the blood of a 42-year-old female farmer from Alongshan who became ill with a fever, headache, and nausea. After the virus was isolated from her blood, genome sequence analysis and electron microscopy showed that it was, indeed, a virus that had never been documented before. Importantly, doctors also noticed she had a history of tick bites.

So far, at least 86 people have fallen sick with the illness, namely around Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang province. Out of the 86 inidividuals, 84 were farmers or forestry workers who live in hilly or wooded areas and work in fields. 

Close-up of an adult female Ixodes tick. Steven Ellingson/Shutterstock

These insights led the researchers to seek out Ixodes persulcatus ticks in the woods where the patients were bitten. The species is actually the culprit for a variety of tick-borne illnesses, including Lyme disease, babesiosis, and Siberian and Far Eastern tick-borne encephalitis. Ticks are an especially effective vector for pathogens, as they latch onto hosts and feed on their blood through every life stage. This process transfers any pathogens they are carrying to the host, and vice versa.

Lo and behold, they discovered the virus was found in the ticks. More surprisingly, evidence of the virus also showed up in mosquitoes collected in the province of Jilin, meaning they cannot be excluded as possible vectors too. While the virus has only been reported in northeastern China so far, the researchers argue it could potentially spread elsewhere as the tick is found across East Asia, Siberia, Eastern Europe, and Northern Europe.

The good news is that there’s no evidence the virus can spread from human-to-human. It’s also relatively easy to treat. All of the patients received a combination of antiviral and antibiotic drugs, which appeared to clear up their symptoms in eight days or less.

To keep tabs on the virus and survey any potential mutations, they also obtained the complete genome of a prominent Alongshan virus strain. This revealed that the virus shares a fair number of similarities with the Jingmen virus, another tick-borne pathogen first discovered in 2014 in China.

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