Langya vs. Nipah: China's New Virus Spread by Shrews Has a Deadly Relative

Langya henipavirus (LayV), a virus that spreads by shrews which has been identified in 35 people in China, has an extremely deadly relative: Nipah virus.

The latest Langya cases were announced in a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine. In it, Xiao-Ai Zhang, from the Beijing Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology, and colleagues said cases had been found in two provinces: Shandong and Henan.

As reported by Focus Taiwan, the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said it is starting to develop ways to track the Langya virus and that methods of sequencing its genome will be ready within a week.

Nipah virus outbreaks and symptoms

This new virus is a close relative of a previously reported, extremely deadly, Nipah virus. Both Nipah and Langya belong to the henipavirus family, which according to the World Health Organization (WHO) are classed as biosafety Level 4 viruses.

Stock image of a 3D rendered Nipah virus particle. Langya virus, which has now infected 35 people in China, is a close relative. iStock / Getty Images Plus

The Nipah virus is zoonotic, having evolved in fruit bats. It is able to be transmitted to humans via animals like bats or pigs, contaminated foods, and between humans.

It is fatal in between 40 to 75 percent of cases. The fatality rate, however, varies on local capabilities.

Nipah was first discovered during an outbreak among pig farmers in Malaysia in 1999. Two years later, cases were found in Bangladesh. There have been an outbreaks almost every year in India ever since.

Other regions known to be at risk include Cambodia, Ghana, Indonesia, Thailand, Madagascar and the Philippines, as natural reservoirs of the virus exist in bats in these regions.

Symptoms of Nipah virus are known to include fever, headaches, myalgia (muscle pain), vomiting and sore throat, as well as dizziness, drowsiness, and acute encephalitis. In serious cases, the patient may fall into a coma within 48 hours.

How does Langyna virus compare?

The NEJM letter describes the symptoms of the 35 Langya patients. It said that of the 26 patients who were infected with Langya alone, had a fever, 54 percent were experiencing fatigue, 50 percent had a cough, 46 percent had muscle aches and pain, 38 percent had nausea, and 35 percent had a headache. The same number reported vomiting.

Half of the patients had anorexia, while 35 percent developed thrombocytopenia—a condition where the platelet count in the blood drops too low. Over half developed leukopenia, where a person's white blood cell count drops. Thirty five percent developed impaired liver function, and eight percent had impaired kidney function.

The fatality rates of this new strain are not yet known, as nobody infected with the virus has yet died.

While not confirmed, the NEJM initial research found the Langya virus in animals in the same regions as the human patients. "A serosurvey of domestic animals detected seropositivity in goats (3 of 168 [2 percent]) and dogs (4 of 79 [5 percent])," the letter said. "Among 25 species of wild small animals surveyed, LayV RNA was predominantly detected in shrews (71 of 262 [27 percent]), a finding that suggests that the shrew may be a natural reservoir of LayV."

stock image shrew and bat
Stock image showing a shrew and a bat. Scientists say shrews have been implicated in the spread of Langya virus, while Pteropus bat species are known to spread Nipah virus. Getty Images

These similarities to the traits of Nipah virus may indicate that Langya could also be transmitted between animals and humans, as well as between humans.

Professor Francois Balloux, the director of the UCL Genetics institute, said the Langya outbreak serves as a reminder of zoonotic pathogens and the threat they pose.

"Other henipaviruses can infect humans. Nipah virus in particular is a cause of concern as it is known to transmit between humans, but it is so lethal that it doesn't have 'pandemic potential,'" he wrote in a tweet.

"LayV looks far less lethal but probably doesn't transmit easily from human to human.

"At this stage, LayV doesn't look like a repeat of Covid-19 at all, but it is yet another reminder of the looming threat caused by the many pathogens circulating in populations of wild and domestic animals that have the potential to infect humans."

While it is too early to know if Langya is treatable, according to WHO, Nipah virus currently has no vaccine or drugs available for treatment, with intensive supportive care being the only option in cases of severe complications.