New form of mpox that may spread more easily found amid Congo's outbreak

A family nurse practitioner prepares a syringe with the Mpox vaccine.
A family nurse practitioner prepares a syringe with the Mpox vaccine. Copyright Jeenah Moon/AP Photo
Copyright Jeenah Moon/AP Photo
By AP & Euronews
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Although the mpox epidemics in the West were contained with the help of vaccines and treatments, barely any have been available in Congo.


Scientists say a new form of mpox found amid an outbreak in Congo may spread more easily among people.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has had more than 4,500 suspected cases of mpox and some 300 deaths since January. The country recently declared the outbreak a health emergency.

An analysis of patients hospitalised between October and January in Kamituga, eastern Congo, suggests recent genetic mutations in mpox are the result of its continued transmission in humans.

Dr Placide Mbala-Kingebeni, the lead researcher of the study, said "we’re in a new phase of mpox".

Mbala-Kingebeni heads a lab at Congo's National Institute of Biomedical Research, which studies the genetics of diseases. The analysis will soon be submitted to a journal for publication.

Mbala-Kingebeni said the lesions reported by most patients are milder and on the genitals which makes the disease trickier to diagnose. Lesions were mostly seen on the chest, hands, and feet in previous outbreaks.

In a report on the global mpox situation this week, WHO said the new version of the disease might require a new testing strategy to pick up the mutations.

With experts pointing out that fewer than half of people in Congo with mpox are tested, Mbala-Kingebeni said: “The risk is that unless patients themselves come forward, we will have a silent transmission of the disease and nobody will know".

Most people infected via sex

Mbala-Kingebeni said most people were infected via sex, with about a third of mpox cases found in sex workers.

It was not until the 2022 global emergency of mpox that scientists established the disease was spread via sex, with most cases in gay or bisexual men. In November, WHO confirmed sexual transmission of mpox in Congo for the first time.

There are two kinds, or clades, of mpox, which is related to smallpox and endemic to central and west Africa.

Clade 1 is more severe and can kill up to 10 per cent of people infected. Clade 2 triggered the 2022 outbreak and more than 99 per cent of people infected survived.

Mbala-Kingebeni and colleagues said they have identified a new form of clade 1 that may be responsible for more than 240 cases and at least three deaths in Kamituga, a region with a significant transient population travelling elsewhere in Africa and beyond.

Dr Boghuma Titanji, an infectious diseases expert at Emory University who is not connected to the research, said the new mutations are concerning.

“This suggests the virus is adapting to spread efficiently in humans and could cause some pretty consequential outbreaks,” she said.

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