A new virus has been identified in China, in the Shandong and Henan provinces. It’s called Langya virus, and has infected at least 35 people since 2018, likely jumping to humans from shrews.
The last time a zoonotic virus carried by a cute animal infected a few people in China, things went pretty badly. But if the Langya virus shares some similarities with covid, the differences are such that they suggest a less apocalyptic outcome.
The first recorded case of the virus dates back to 2018, when a farmer was treated for fever in a Shandong hospital. Between then and 2021, 34 more cases were identified, all among farmers, and further researched published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed the cause was a virus transmitted by shrews—a very small, mole-like mammal typically found on farms.
So far, all the people infected with Langya have reported somewhat mild symptoms, such as fever, cough, fatigue, headache, and vomiting. In a few cases, patients reported signs of kidney and liver damage, but there are no recorded deaths.
Further, the fact that there have only been 35 cases in three years suggest slow transmission, and there is no evidence yet to indicate that the virus is contagious between human. All of the reported cases can reasonably be explained by direct contact with shrews carrying the virus. Researchers also contact-traced some of the patients and verified that their families and close contacts had not been infected.
Langya is one of six known henipaviruses, which are carried by small mammals such as bats. In some cases, they can infect humans, and be concerning. The Nipah virus, for instance, which has been identified in south Asia since 1998, causes severe neurological symptoms and is highly deadly—too deadly, in fact, to cause a pandemic, as the virus kills the host before it can be transmitted.
Through testing aimed at identifying the host of the virus, Langya was also found in a small number of goats and dogs. After the cases were confirmed in China, Taiwan has announced its intention of monitoring for virus cases, too.
While there is no cause for alarm at the moment, the emergence of this virus is a reminder that there are a lot of pathogens carried by animals, and that some of them can and do make the jump to humans.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are as many as half a million viruses with spillover potential that could cause widespread infection among humans. Of them, about 250 (including covid, malaria, and monkeypox) have recorded cases of transmission to humans.
Scientists have warned that phenomena such as deforestation might lead to an increase in the risk of contact between wild animals and humans, heightening the spillover risk. Further, climate change could expand the habitats of animals—such as certain types of mosquitos—known to transmit diseases to humans.