A virus by any other name is still a virus

One of the most lethal viruses known to science has made its appearance in Africa, but naming it has been held up by political sensitivities.

The unnamed haemorrhagic virus, which has killed four people in Gauteng, was confirmed as an unknown member of the arenavirus family by Janusz Paweska, head of the Special Pathogens Unit (SPU) at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg.

The fifth infected person is reported to be recovering. This is a kill rate similar to those of Ebola or Marburg virus, which are considered two of the most dangerous viruses.

Naming the virus has been problematic: normally arenaviruses are named after the geographic region where they were first discovered. But the first victim of the latest virus lived on the outskirts of Lusaka and the Zambian authorities are reluctant to have the name of the capital city attached to a highly dangerous pathogen.

Bob Swanepoel of the NICD said that as a result he had gone back in history to find the putative name, which cannot be released until the everyone is happy with it.

Paweska said the new virus could result from a natural melding of two arenaviruses. Initial analysis suggests that it appeared to have genetic characteristics from both lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV), the first arenavirus ever identified and Lassa.

These are the two of the “Old World” arenaviruses which are particularly fatal to humans. LCMV typically attacks the nervous system, while Lassa causes the extensive bleeding characteristic of a haemorrhagic fever.

Paweska said that in contrast to known arena viruses, when grown in a laboratory the new pathogen started killing its host cells rapidly. Nor did the patients bleed extensively, making it harder to identify.

Haemorrhagic viruses are particularly feared because there is little than can be done to treat them; the only drug that might be effective has to be given within five days of infection. Such viruses can spread through the air, in food and by contact.

Biopsies of the dead are needed to confirm that there was an outbreak caused by one pathogen and to identify the culprit, the bodies were taken to the highest rated biosafety lab at the NICD.

When Martin Hale, professor of anatomical pathology at Wits University, prepared to take the organ samples, he first had to cut his way through 14 layers of plastic wrapped around the bodies. Hale said haemorrhagic viruses tend to head for the liver, which is the metabolic powerhouse of the body.

The resulting damage leaves the liver unable to produce clotting factors, which is why patients bleed so dramatically.

Humans can become infected by inhaling virus particles or from food, or through touch. Swanepoel said that viral haemorrhagic fevers tend to be widespread, but many people develop symptoms no more severe than those of flu, or none at all.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

How to escape the ‘era of pandemics’

Any of 850 000 viruses could cause the next global crisis. Experts say we should focus on prevention

Will the coronavirus cause a major growth slowdown in China?

The panic generated by the new coronavirus, 2019-nCov, which originated in Wuhan, one of China’s largest cities and a...

The coronavirus is a disease of Chinese autocracy

An outbreak of a new coronavirus that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan has already infected over 4000 people –...

Seven things you should know about this country’s largest Lassa fever outbreak

Nigeria's latest and largest epidemic has claimed almost 100 lives. Find out more about the virus.

Explainer: why children are at risk of hand, foot and mouth disease

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a viral infection that can affect infants and young children.

Ebola death toll rises in Guinea

Guinea has battled to contain an Ebola epidemic threatening neighbouring countries as fear and confusion grips its people.

Subscribers only

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

More top stories

Eusebius McKaiser: Mpofu, Gordhan caught in the crosshairs

The lawyer failed to make his Indian racist argument and the politician refused to admit he had no direct evidence

Corruption forces health shake-up in Gauteng

Dr Thembi Mokgethi appointed as new health MEC as premier seeks to stop Covid-19 malfeasance

Public-private partnerships are key for Africa’s cocoa farmers

Value chain efficiency and partnerships can sustain the livelihoods of farmers of this historically underpriced crop

Battery acid, cassava sticks and clothes hangers: We must end...

COMMENT: The US’s global gag rule blocks funding to any foreign NGOS that perform abortions, except in very limited cases. The Biden-Harris administration must rescind it

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…