Scientists are keeping a close eye on a newly identified virus in China that’s infected dozens of people in the past few years, according to a new report in the New England Journal Of Medicine. So far, at least 35 people have been infected with the virus – known as the novel Langya henipavirus (LayV) – in China's Shandong and Henan Provinces since 2019.
Many of the infected people had symptoms such as fever, tiredness, a cough, vomiting, nausea, and headaches, while a significant number experienced impaired liver and kidney function, as well as low levels of platelets or white blood cells. No deaths have been reported yet, thankfully.
Genetic analysis showed that the pathogen is a henipavirus, the same genus that contains Hendra virus – a bat-borne virus that infects horses and humans, first identified in Australia – and Nipah virus – another zoonotic virus found in Asia.
It appears that LayV is also closely related to another henipavirus called Mòjiāng virus, which may have infected six miners, killing three of them, in China’s Mòjiāng Hani Autonomous County back in June 2012.
There is currently no vaccine for henipavirus and the only treatment is supportive care to keep complications at bay.
It’s unclear whether the virus can be transmitted person-to-person, the report says. The researchers carried out contact tracing of nine patients with 15 close contacts and found no evidence of the virus being passed on to other people. However, they said their sample was too small to completely rule out the possibility of human-to-human transmission. Most of the 35 cases were in farmers, although a small number were factory workers.
To understand where LayV came from, scientists from China, Singapore, and Australia sampled a number of different animals and managed to also detect the pathogen in shrews, indicating this might be its natural reservoir.
The scale of the threat is unclear. However, the researchers have called for calm over their report and urged for further research into the matter.
Professor Wang Linfa, co-author of the new paper from the Programme in Emerging Infectious Diseases at Duke-NUS Medical School, told the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times that the cases of the disease have “not been fatal or very serious” and currently there is “no need for panic.”