Squirrels can make monkeypox a problem forever

In the summer of 2003, just weeks after the outbreak of monkeypox concerning 70 people in the Midwest, Mark Slifka visited the “super distributor,” he told me, “who infected half of the Wisconsin cases.”

Chui, a prairie dog, has so far succumbed to the disease, which he almost certainly caught in a facility for exotic animals, which he shared with infected rats with bags from Ghana. But his owner’s other prairie dog, the Monkey – named after the way he climbed around his cage – became infected with the pathogen and survived. “I was a little worried,” said Slifka, an immunologist at the University of Oregon Health and Science. All the traits that made the Monkey a charismatic pet did the same infectious threat. He hugged and gnawed at his owners; when they left the house, he wrapped himself in their clothes until they returned. “It was sweet,” Slifka told me. “But I said to myself, ‘Can the Monkey be in his cage when we come?’

Slifka made it home without measles, and the 2003 epidemic subsided. But this rash of cases was a close call: an opportunity for the virus to set up shop in a new animal host. A durable interspecific hop, similar to the one SARS-CoV-2 has become white-tailed deerand monkeypox will be “with us forever” in the United States, says Barbara Hahn, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute in New York. In Central and West Africa, where the virus is endemic, scientists suspect that at least several species of rodents periodically infect humans. And as the biggest so far smallpox epidemic beyond Africa in history continues to unfold –more than 2700 confirmed and suspected cases have been reported approximately three dozen countries“Now the virus is hitting the door a lot harder.” This time we may not be so lucky; the geography of monkeypox may soon change.

Any new jumps could reshape the future for this virus and for us. Experts believe that this possibility is unlikely – “low risk, but it is a risk,” said Jeffrey Dottie, a disease ecologist at the CDC. Existing animal reservoirs make some diseases almost impossible to eradicate; the emergence of new ones can lead to future outbreaks in places where they are currently uncommon. If researchers can identify some of these animals and prevent them from mixing with us, we could overcome some of these problems. But this is great is. With so many susceptible animals, finding a harbor for the virus can send researchers on a one-year race without a clear finish line.


Scientists have first discovered monkeypox in the 1950sin two species of monkeys housed in a Danish animal facility; hence the name that it will probably change soon. But over the decades since then, the best evidence of virus retention in animals has come from rodents in Central and West Africa, including rope squirrels, solar squirrels, Gambian rats, etc. All indications are that rodents are “responsible for keeping the virus in the wild,” Dottie told me, and that’s why he and his colleagues are most worried about these mammals when considering what animals in non-endemic regions may be the biggest. risk in the future.

But a I’m tearing up rodents move around the planet –about 2500 species, which together make up approximately 40 percent of known mammals. Although not all species are capable of transmitting monkeypox – e.g. guinea pigs, golden hamstersand ordinary mice and rats usually don’t – many can.

Building an animal tank box usually requires years of field work, strict safety protocols, and a lot of luck. For several viruses, the narrative reservoir is relatively clean: the Hendra virus, often a fatal respiratory infection, usually runs from bats to horses to people; most hantaviruses that can cause deadly fever are in the store a species of rodent everyone. However, monkeypox is far less picky than that. Experts suspect that many animals support the virus’s penetration into the wild. However, everyone can guess how many there are.

The gold standard for reservoir creation requires the isolation of an active virus – evidence that the pathogen is photocopied inside a viable host. But in the wild, “you can break your back and end up with only five animals of one species,” Khan, who uses machine learning to try to predict potential reservoirs for monkeypox, He told me. “And what five animals?” They may lack the virus in question, even if other members of their population host it; they may have been caught at an age or during a season when the pathogen is not present. And among the animals that host the virus, the reservoir may not always be the most obvious species: rodents may be among the most common carriers of monkeypox, but zoo outbreaks and laboratory experiments show that the virus is capable of infiltrating anteaters, rabbitsand a large handful of primatestogether with other non-German mammals. In several of these species, other scientists have found antibodies that recognize poxviruses, hinting at past exposures; they even revealed the DNA of the virus. Only twicehowever, has anyone detected an active virus in wild animals: a rope squirrel from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1980s and a soot mangabeydiscovered in C├┤te d’Ivoire about a decade ago.

Even these cases were not stabs. It takes more to “figure out which one is a reservoir, which one they’re infected with, but they’re not really responsible for keeping the virus circulating in humans,” said Jamie Lloyd-Smith, a UCLA disease ecologist. Just because an animal can inject the virus into us doesn’t mean it will.


For this to happen, people need to have enough contact with animals to make exposure possible – in routine bush meat hunts, for example, or in cracked landscapes, where animals look for food in and around people’s homes. Lloyd-Smith, who studied Congolese, said that analyzing what is risky and what is not more difficult than it sounds: Most of all he talks to interact with forest creatures all the time. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, people ate salmon mousse at church breakfast,'” he told me. To complicate matters further, wild and domestic animals can act as intermediaries between humans and a real reservoir, says Stephanie Seifert, a disease ecologist at Washington State University. Sometimes researchers have to cross networks of interaction through Kevin Bacon – similar degrees of separation – to determine the original source.

Disclosure of this natural origin is key to blocking the virus from moving to new real estate – and, perhaps, breaching existing leases. In Central and West Africa, for example, where some people’s livelihoods depend on hunting and eating wild game, “You can’t just say ‘Don’t interact with rodents,'” Seifert told me. But with more research, says Clement Meseco, a veterinarian and virologist studying the human-wildlife interface at Nigeria’s National Veterinary Research Institute, perhaps experts could eventually name just a few species and then recommend sustainable alternatives. their place. Improved sanitation to protect rodents from pests can also help. So he could distributing vaccines to people living in high-risk regions of endemic countries“Or maybe.” the anxious wild animals themselves. (Animal immunization is a fairly high goal, but it can still be a better alternative to destroying animals, which “often doesn’t work,” Lloyd-Smith said.)

In the United States, amid the current rash of monkeypox cases, the CDC has recommended infected people avoid interacting with pets, livestock and other animals in general. Although no cat or dog has ever been known to be infected, “we generally don’t know anything about monkeypox in ordinary animals,” Dottie said. For now, it’s best to play it safe.

And the most sensible way to prevent the virus from entering a new animal species, Khan said, “is to control the outbreak in humans.” The range of monkeypox species is already huge and in today’s world people and animals collide more often. Against the backdrop of the ongoing hearth, Meseko, who spends the year graduating from a scholarship to St. Paul, Minnesota, notes “how squirrels are free everywhere.” Whatever threat they pose to us, “animals are also in danger from humans,” he told me.

After all, human activity brought monkeypox to the United States in 2003 and to a group of prairie dogs that included Chuui and Monkey. “They would not be exposed geographically without us moving around this virus,” Seifert said. And human desire for pets has brought these prairie dogs to dozens of homes in the Midwest. People mobilize the disease; our species also poses a huge infectious threat to the planet. The current epidemic of monkeypox, for example, is more scattered and human-oriented than those documented in the past. And the more opportunities the virus has to infiltrate new hosts, the more opportunities it has to expand the range of species. Any leaks in animals may not be detected too late; perhaps, some experts say, this has happened long ago by planting a tank that helped the ongoing epidemic to erupt. “We don’t have evidence of that right now,” said Grant McFadden, a poxvirus expert at Arizona State University. “But that can change by a penny.”

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