Second-Ever Case of New 'Alaskapox' Virus Strain Recorded in U.S.

An Alaska woman was recently diagnosed with the second-ever known case of a novel strain of virus that's potentially being carried by animals.

A bulletin published on Wednesday by state epidemiology experts detailed symptoms of a woman living in the Fairbanks area who sought medical care in August this year and tested positive for what has been dubbed by virologists as "Alaskapox."

While there is much that remains unknown about this mysterious new virus and how it spreads, scientists say evidence suggests the public health impact is limited and there have been no signs of human-to-human transmission in the known cases.

Experts believe it's a new species of orthopoxvirus, a family of double-stranded DNA viruses that infect a variety of animals, including humans.

Documenting the most recent diagnosis, the state bulletin said the woman, who was not named, had a grey lesion on her left upper arm that was followed by redness of the skin. She also reported suffering from shoulder pain, fatigue, and fever at night.

The patient's lesion was removed and submitted to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where it tested positive for an orthopoxvirus. Analysis confirmed it belonged to a lineage that was only documented once before—in 2015.

At that time, a woman who also lived in the Fairbanks area had complained of similar symptoms. Testing confirmed a lesion on her shoulder was "caused by an orthopoxvirus belonging to a previously undiscovered lineage," the bulletin said.

In the July 2015 case, the patient's lesion resolved after about six months. In the 2020 case, shoulder pain lasted for about two weeks after the lesion had appeared. The area had mostly healed by approximately six weeks after symptoms started.

Eric Mooring, a CDC epidemic intelligence officer who contributed to the state bulletin, told Anchorage Daily News that Alaskapox is only the third new orthopoxvirus that has been recorded in the last 10 years—but people should be aware, not scared.

The state's report broadly echoed that message, saying the two known cases were five years apart and there appeared to be no epidemiological link between them.

Experts hypothesized that Alaskapox is most likely found in "one or more" species of mammals in interior Alaska and that humans are "only occasionally infected."

In the 2015 diagnosis, the woman who was infected reported having contact with small mammals and their droppings, although no source was confirmed.

In the case this year, the woman lived with two cats that often captured or killed small mammals at her home. She had contact with dogs that were owned by relatives and was outside picking raspberries roughly two weeks before showing symptoms.

Both cases were documented during mid-to-late summer, when mammal populations are at a peak, although scientists are still probing if that was a coincidence.

"It is reassuring that both known infections caused self-limiting illness. However, much remains unknown about the epidemiology and pathology of Alaskapox virus," the state bulletin said, advising residents to wash their hands regularly, avoid handling any wild animals and taking more steps to prevent wild animals from entering buildings.

Scientist conducting experiment (Stock)
File photo: A scientist conducting an experiment in a lab. An Alaska woman was recently diagnosed with the second-ever known case of a novel strain of virus that’s potentially being carried by animals. iStock