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Monkeypox Genome 6 Times Tougher to Analyse than SARS-CoV-2

Researchers are trying to find out how the virus spread outside Africa.

It has not been a month since a confirmed case of monkeypox was reported in the United Kingdom (UK) and there are more than 400 infections in, at least, 20 countries outside Africa—including Canada, Portugal, Spain and the UK. This is the largest outbreak of the virus outside Africa.

Notably, monkeypox is generally confined to African countries and the increasing number of cases in different countries has alarmed scientists. In many of the clusters of cases, there is no apparent link, which raises the possibility of local transmission of the virus going undetected. 

Now, scientists and researchers are busy digging up the matter and are focussed on certain questions. Notably, scientists have sequenced the genome of the virus, collected from countries outside Africa, including Belgium, France, Germany and the United States.

The sequencing revealed that the viral strain in these countries was similar to that commonly found in West Africa. It’s worth noting that the west African strain has a death rate of even less than 1%, especially among the poor and rural population. On the other hand, the strain commonly prevalent in Central Africa is of concern, which can cause fatality with a rate of 10%.

Researchers are still searching for a definitive lead about how exactly the outbreaks started outside Africa. There may be a travel link but it has not been zeroed down yet. In earlier outbreaks outside Africa in 2018 and 2019, researchers could find a definitive link to travel history to Africa. 

Experts also put forward the other hypothesis—the virus was already in circulation among people and animals outside Africa and went undetected. However, the possibility of such a situation is not strong as the virus forms visible skin lesions like the chickenpox virus and physicians would have suspected it readily.

Researchers are also looking at the possibility of some genetic changes accrued by the virus over time which might offer them the capability of spreading so fast outside Africa, which is not that easy. “Understanding whether there is a genetic basis for the virus’s unprecedented spread outside Africa will be incredibly difficult,” said computational virologist of the University of Alabama, Birmingham Elliot Lefkowitz.

Scientists are still struggling to decipher what changes in the Central African strain made it more virulent even after 17 years of the two strains were detected. One of the reasons for this too difficult task, according to Lefkowitz, is the sheer size of the pox virus. For example, the genome of the pox virus is six times larger than SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that drives the pandemic. This implies that it is nearly six times tougher to analyse the pox virus compared to the coronavirus. Alongside, the limited resource availability of genome surveillance of the pox virus in Africa is also relatable, said experts.

Scientists are also looking at whether the virus is spreading differently than it did in the previous outbreaks. The monkeypox virus is well known to spread through close contact with lesions, bodily fluids or the respiratory droplets of infected people or animals. This is different than the coronavirus, which can spread also via droplets but more worryingly through the air. This makes the coronavirus spread readily and to more distances. Along with it, researchers are also looking at whether sexual activity has something to do with the spreading ability of the virus.

The other major issue is how to contain the outbreaks before they create a worldwide panic. Importantly, vaccines against the small pox have been found effective against monkeypox as well. The other positive part of these pox vaccines is that they can offer protection when administered even within four days of infection. This is due to the long incubation period of the virus, which is not the situation with the COVID-19 vaccines.

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