The World Health Organization (WHO) has no evidence that the monkeypox virus has mutated, a senior UN agency official said at a Monday morning press briefing, noting that the infectious disease endemic in West and Central Africa has tended not to change.
Dr Rosamund Lewis, head of the smallpox secretariat, which is part of the WHO’s emergency programme, told the briefing that mutations tend to be generally weaker with monkeypox virus, although genome sequencing of cases will help to better understand the current epidemic.
Most of the more than 100 suspected and confirmed cases in a recent outbreak in Europe and North America were not serious, said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s head of emerging diseases and zoonoses and technical lead of COVID-19.
“This is a manageable situation,” she said, particularly in Europe. “But we can’t take our eyes off the ball with what’s happening in Africa, in countries where it’s endemic.”
Outbreaks described as atypical
On Monday, Denmark announced its first case, Portugal revised its total up to 37, Italy reported a new infection and Britain added 37 more cases.
The epidemics are atypical, according to the WHO, occurring in countries where the virus does not circulate regularly. Scientists are looking to understand where the cases originated and if anything about the virus has changed. Monkeypox has yet to cause widespread epidemics beyond Africa, where it is endemic in animals.
The WHO is asking dermatology and primary health care clinics, as well as sexual health clinics, to be alert to potential cases. Van Kerkhove said she expected more cases to be identified as surveillance expands.
Dr David Heymann, a senior adviser to the WHO and former head of the WHO emergency department, told The Associated Press that the unprecedented outbreak of monkeypox in Europe and North America was a “random event”. The main theory explaining the spread of the disease was sexual transmission at raves held in Spain and Belgium, he said.
In a separate briefing held Monday afternoon by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), health officials said some of the cases seen in North America, however, predate events in Europe. They stressed that the outbreak was still in its early stages.
US health officials said Monday they were aware of one confirmed case, in the state of Massachusetts, and four probable cases – two in Utah, one in Florida and one in New York. All were men who had traveled outside the United States. Many – but not all – of the people who have been diagnosed in the current outbreak of monkeypox were men who had sex with men.
“Remember, infectious diseases don’t care about borders or social networks,” said CDC medical epidemiologist Dr. John Brooks. “Certain groups may have a greater chance of exposure at this time, but the current risk of exposure to monkeypox is by no means exclusive to the gay and bisexual community in the United States”
CDC officials said the United States was in the process of releasing some doses of the Jynneos vaccine for use in monkeypox cases, noting there were more than 1,000 doses in national stockpile. They also said they expect this level to rise very quickly in the coming weeks.
The virus spreads through close contact
The virus does not usually spread easily between people, but it can be transmitted by close person-to-person contact or by contact with items used by someone with monkeypox, such as clothing, bedding, or utensils.
“By nature, sexual activity involves intimate contact, which would be expected to increase the likelihood of transmission, regardless of a person’s sexual orientation and regardless of the mode of transmission,” said Dr Mike Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London.