Is monkeypox the world’s new COVID-19? scientists judge

As if a pandemic wasn’t enough, a dangerous new virus is spreading across the world. About two weeks ago, monkeypox — a pathogen native to west and central Africa that causes flu-like symptoms and a rash — emerged in places where it’s not normally found.

Portugal, Spain and the UK have reported a few dozen cases together. And now the United States. Authorities in Massachusetts discovered the infection Tuesday night, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was quick to confirm it.

But don’t panic. The world has already contained outbreaks of monkeypox. And we are even better prepared for the virus now after three years of practicing with the novel coronavirus.

“I’m not worried about anything resembling an outbreak,” Irwin Redlener, the founding director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Risk Reduction, told The Daily Beast. He used the epidemiological definition of an outbreak, which is a sudden spread of an unusual disease, but in a small geographic area rather than global.

The handful of monkeypox cases in a handful of countries are not yet considered an outbreak by the standards of many scientists. Could the virus spread to more people in more countries? Yes. But don’t expect it to be anything like the spread of COVID. “SARS-CoV is much more contagious than other infections,” Stephanie James, the director of a virus testing lab at Regis University in Colorado, told The Daily Beast.

Slower spread means authorities have more time to confirm cases, isolate those infected and trace their recent contacts with others. There is no vaccine specific to monkeypox, but the virus is similar to smallpox, so smallpox vaccines should be reasonably effective — and a useful tool to block smallpox transmission once contact tracers have identified those at risk.

That happened in 2003, the last time monkeypox had a significant impact in the United States — then from rodents shipped to Texas from Ghana in West Africa. Forty-seven people fell ill, but a quick response from state and federal health officials — and a few doses of smallpox vaccine — prevented deaths and quickly, albeit temporarily, eliminated the virus in the United States

Monkeypox, which first made the leap from monkeys or rodents to humans in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa in 1970, flares up here and there from time to time – usually in Africa. But it rarely infects more than a few thousand people a year – and killed just 33 people during its longest-running outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1981 and 1986.


A smallpox vaccination scar can be seen on an upper arm. There is no approved vaccine specifically against monkeypox. According to historical data, however, a smallpox vaccination offers good protection against monkeypox – and probably for life.

Photo by Bernd Weißbrod/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

There’s good reason monkeypox isn’t nearly as contagious as COVID. Where COVID spreads via very fine droplets of saliva — the kind we all spit out feet in all directions every time we breathe, speak, laugh or cough — monkeypox prefers larger droplets that don’t travel very far. It can also spread through direct contact between the pathogen and an open wound, but this route of transmission is even less likely than these large, fast-falling droplets.

The key to stopping monkeypox is rapid identification so isolation, contact tracing, and treatment can begin before the virus spreads too widely. We were pretty good at that a generation ago. We’re even better at it now, thanks in no small part to COVID. “Most of the world is much better prepared for monkeypox than it was two and a half years ago,” Paul Anantharajah Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection in Singapore, told The Daily Beast.

“We need to find out what’s going on quickly.”

The tests are more demanding – not only for SARS-CoV-2 infections, but for a whole range of viral diseases. “I’d like to think we’ve learned how to do bulk testing more efficiently,” James said. “PCR tests are actually easy as long as we have the right reagents. We can also test for multiple viruses at the same time.”

We’re also better at contact tracing. Studying people’s movements and relationships to find out who they came into close contact with and when was a niche practice three years ago. Today, many tens of thousands of healthcare professionals around the world have contact tracing experience.

The general public is also more vigilant. Sure, COVID-related restrictions on schools, businesses, and travel irritate a lot of people. Nobody likes to wear a mask. Small but stubborn minorities in some countries are refusing even to take the free, safe, and effective vaccines that offer strong protection against the worst effects of COVID infection.


The head of the Bundeswehr’s Institute of Microbiology Roman Woelfel works in his laboratory in Munich, Germany May 20, 2022, after Germany discovered its first case of monkeypox.

Photo by Christine Uyanik/Reuters

But that recalcitrance belies the deep awareness most people now have when it comes to viral diseases. People are likely to notice when a friend, neighbor, or family member gets smallpox — and they’re likely to take it seriously. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of staying one step ahead of infectious disease threats, rather than constantly chasing them,” Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told The Daily Beast. “The world is now familiar with the terms ‘case investigation’, ‘contact tracing’ and ‘genome sequencing’.”

Perhaps most reassuring is that we already have a vaccine. With COVID we had to lock down for a year and wait for the first vaccinations to be ready. But since the smallpox vaccine works for monkeypox, there’s no waiting.

If there’s any cause for concern about the recent spate of monkeypox cases, it’s that we still don’t know exactly where and how it started. Locating the origins of virus spread obviously helps contain it. “We need to figure out what’s going on quickly,” James Lawler, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told The Daily Beast.

“In general, we consider monkeypox to be much less deadly than smallpox, easier to control in terms of transmission, and amenable to vaccines and antiviral drugs,” Lawler added.

All this is to say don’t worry. Unless a contact tracer knocks (which is unlikely) or you notice strange blisters on your neighbor or yourself (even less likely), you don’t need to change anything. “The risk to the general public is very low,” Rimoin said.

Monkeypox is making one of its periodic comebacks. But this is a virus that we can contain really well. Is monkeypox the world’s new COVID-19? scientists judge


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