Scientists at the Dutor Ricardo Jorge National Institute of Health in Portugal have found that the monkeypox virus is evolving faster than expected. The findings, published in the journal Nature Medicine, are based on genetic studies of samples isolated from 15 patients.
Genetic analysis showed that the virus began to mutate at a rate 6-12 times higher than expected. The accelerated change in the pathogen is evidence that it has evolved a new way of infecting humans. It is believed that it is transmitted from person to person through close contact with an infected or airborne droplet.
Some mutations are associated with the effect of the virus on the human immune system, in particular, on enzymes such as APOBEC3, which are involved in the neutralization of viruses, causing errors when copying genetic material. The researchers note that the virus may have been circulating in small quantities in human communities or spread to animals in other countries.
There are two main varieties of monkeypox known to exist: West African smallpox and smallpox of the Congo Basin – the former is much less deadly and is a branch that has infected several thousand people outside of Africa. Previous research has also shown that viruses such as monkeypox typically only mutate once or twice a year.