The new Langya henipavirus detected in dozens of people in China may not cause the next pandemic but reminds us just how easily viruses can travel from animals to humans unnoticed, scientists warn.
Though it did not cause any reported deaths, Langya, which may have spread directly or indirectly to people from shrews, was detected in 35 unrelated fever patients in Shandong and Henan provincial hospitals between 2018 and 2021.
That only enhances scientists’ longstanding warnings that animal pathogens are regularly spilling undetected into people around the world.
The emerging virus expert Leo Poon, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, stressed that the Langya virus is just the tip of the iceberg since we’re hugely underestimating the number of these zoonotic cases in the world.
Experts doubt that the new virus is unlikely to evolve into another ‘disease X’ event – when a previously unknown pathogen sparks an epidemic or pandemic – but Linfa Wang, the veteran emerging infectious disease scientist who was part of the research team, pointed out that Langya demonstrates that such zoonotic spillover events happen more often than we think or know.
Wang, a professor at the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School, noted that active surveillance in a transparent and internationally collaborative way is absolutely necessary to reduce the risk of an emerging virus becoming a health crisis.
More study is also needed on a larger subset of patients to rule out human-to-human spread although there is no evidence that Langya is spreading between people nor that it had caused a local outbreak of connected cases.
In a phenomenon that has accelerated as growing human populations expand into wildlife habitats, as scientists explained, around 70% of emerging infectious diseases globally are thought to have passed into humans via contact with animals.