Monkey pox: the initial strain of the virus that appeared in Europe has already mutated 50 times, researchers warn of the risk of spread

The pathogen behind the current outbreak of monkeypox or monkeypox has mutated surprisingly strongly, according to a study conducted by members of the National Institute of Health in Lisbon, Portugal.

Since its appearance in Europe in 2022, we now know a little more about the epidemic of monkeypoxbut as scientific advances progress, the comparison with Covid-19 becomes more and more worrying, especially in the way this smallpox virus transforms and spreads.

To begin with, therefore, the causative agent of monkeypox is the virus monkeypox of the family of pox virus, a very important group which includes the viruses of human smallpox and other animal smallpox. “Pox” is the plural of “pock” which in English means “pustule”.

This is called “monkey” pox because the virus was discovered in 1958 in laboratory monkeys, but it is rather a smallpox virus hosted by rodents such as squirrels and large African rats such as the Gambian rat. “This virus clinically resembles smallpox but monkeypox is caused by a poxvirus different from the smallpox virus”, explains the WHO. The first human case was detected in 1970, in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a child living in an area where smallpox had been eliminated since 1968. Two strains of monkeypox are known:

The Congo strain or Central African strain (the most virulent) and the West African strain (less virulent which seems to be the one found in the current cases).

Regarding the 2022 cases, “preliminary PCR test data indicate that monkeypox virus strains detected in Europe and other non-endemic areas belong to the West African clade”where the virus first appeared, the WHO said on June 4.

Except that this virus at the origin of recent cases of monkeypox in the world seems to mutate more quickly than expected according to a new study published this Friday, June 24 in the medical journal Nature Medicine.

One of the study’s authors, scientist João Paulo Gomes from the Portuguese National Institute of Health in Lisbon, said the world was now facing an epidemic “caused by a virus that presents [beaucoup] more mutations compared to this type of virus”.

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And according to the latest research elements reported by the Europa Press agency, the fact that the virus is actively spreading from one person to another would also mean a significant mutation of the initial strain.

And the researcher adds: “It was quite unexpected to find so many mutations in the 2022 monkeypox virus. In fact, given the characteristics of the genome of this type of virus, no more than one or two mutations are likely to emerge each year.

However, the team of researchers has indeed observed about 50 mutations of the strain. This is about six to 12 times more than normal for this type of pathogen. This process could be a sign of accelerated evolution.

“Our data reveal additional clues to ongoing viral evolution and possible human adaptation“, says microbiologist João Paulo Gomes, who led the study.

Experts also suspect that enzymes in the human immune system are responsible for these genome changes.

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However, the researchers add that there is no proven indication that the mutations have favored the current spread, without excluding it. New research will help to find out more, but the first results are already causing concern.

“These genetic changes seem to be linked to adaptations to the new host (human beings, since the natural host of the virus is different from rodents and other small mammals) in a non-endemic area., warns the same source. This is the reason why the authors of the study suspect that one or more introductions of mutations of this virus would be at the origin of the current epidemic. Mainstream events and overseas travel seemed to have fostered a new surge in the virus mutation.

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Worldwide, nearly 5,000 monkeypox infections have been reported this year. Of these, 3,308 cases have been reported in 40 countries outside Africa as of Wednesday June 22, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Although the monkeypox epidemic is not spreading as quickly or as extensively as SARS-CoV-2, we are facing a new example of an emerging infection that can spread rapidly through the world and which must be stopped as soon as possible to prevent more serious consequences. Genomic surveillance of these pathogens is the most relevant tool to achieve this goal “concludes the researcher.

A strong statement in a sensitive health context. It is this Friday that the WHO (World Health Organization) must decide on the level of vigilance to be adopted vis-à-vis the monkey pox virus in the world. The global health emergency, a sign of the emergence of a pandemic could be decreed this Friday. And the elements of this study seem to confirm the fears about the evolution of the epidemic.

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