The monkeypox virus strain that has emerged across the world in recent weeks may be evolving at an abnormally fast rate – making it more infectious than previous versions of the virus.
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that the virus has replicated up to 12 times its expected pace since 2018.
This means that the virus, which is generally believed to spread by physical touch, contaminated surfaces or very close bodily contact could be able to spread in ways atypical to the tropical viruses normal patterns.
It would explain the recent global monkeypox update, where 201 cases have been detected across 25 U.S. states and Washington D.C., with over 3,500 cases detected worldwide in countries where the virus is not endemic.
Researchers found that the current strain of the monkeypox virus that has caused worldwide outbreaks of the tropical virus is mutating at a speed 12 times what is expected of it. This potentially makes it more transmissible
Researchers, whose findings are pending official publishing in nature, collected and studied 15 samples of the monkeypox virus for the study.
The NIH team restructured the viruses genetic information to find the number of changes the virus had undergone since this strain began its circulation.
While the virus was detected recently in human populations, experts believe this strain of West African monkeypox first began its movement through the world in 2018.
How viruses mutate and circulate is a generally known science. DNA viruses like monkeypox generally do not rapidly mutate – like COVID-19 does.
The nature of the virus allows it to fix errors that emerge when it replicates, leaving much lower room for mutations to form – and in effect limiting the number of variants.
When researchers did investigate this strain of the virus, they found that it had mutated between six to 12 times the generally believed rate for the virus.
Why exactly this is can not be determined, though the experts believe that this could be playing a role in how the virus has managed to storm the world this year.
Cases of monkeypox have appeared in nearly 50 countries where it is not endemic in recent weeks.
While occasionally non-endemic nations will find cases – two were detected in the U.S. in 2021 – infections are usually easy to find and outbreaks can be controlled by health officials once they catch wind of circulation.
This outbreak has been different, though, with cases quickly being detected in droves around the world. This could signal a more infectious version of the virus is afoot.
The 201 cases in the U.S. this year are believed to be a severe undercount as some experts have warned that the country does not have the necessary testing and tracking capabilities to stay on top of each new case.
The version of monkeypox spreading around the world is of the West African variety, but it is mutating at a pace that would not be expected of a DNA virus (file photo)
Some even fear that the virus will become endemic in the U.S., UK and other countries around the world.
Most infections that have been spotted as part of the current outbreak are among gay and bisexual men, both in the U.S. and across Europe.
California, America’s most populous state, has recorded 51 infections thus far – the most of any state. New York and Illinois have also logged 35 and 26 respectively.
With the way the virus has spread through sexual networks, some fear that Pride festivities across America last weekend could lead to a surge in cases.
In preparation, New York City health officials began to rollout monkeypox vaccines to the city’s population last week.
Supply of the shots quickly ran thin, though, with walk-in appointments being cut off on Friday due to high demand.
With the jab taking around four days to fully activate as well, there are questions over whether the shots came out too late to matter ahead of the city’s Pride parade which hosted around two million people.