Overview:

Yet another zoonotic infection is in the news. But is mainstream media being responsible in its coverage of the Langya henipavirus? (No.)

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On August 4, Chinese and Singaporean scientists published a paper on a novel Henipavirus now present in humans, and elements of their work are now making the rounds in mainstream and social media in a highly irresponsible manner. Here’s what you need to know about the Langya henipavirus (also known as LayV), which has a case count of 35 humans across two Chinese provinces, and which is being reported on just weeks after Wuhan placed one million people back into COVID-19 lockdown over four asymptomatic cases.

Langya was first detected in 2018. The study that set off this news storm, “A Zoonotic Henipavirus in Febrile Patients in China”, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and includes an analysis of 35 human patients with acute infections. The paper’s findings have been boosted by commentary on the virus and laboratory standings from Taiwanese Centers for Disease Control.

Langya belongs to a viral family that includes the Nipah (NiV) and Hendra (HeV) viruses, and which has a Biosafety Level-4 ranking with the World Health Organization. This means that the overall viral family has a high risk of causing life-threatening disease, and that due to its aerosol transmission, cannot easily be contained or minimized. This is why you might see some reports claiming that Langya has up to a 75% death rate: the estimate for the family.

But even though the symptoms described in the scientists’ write-up merit the attention of medical professionals, this is not an accurate estimate for the novel virus itself.

For the 26 patients that researchers isolated as having only been affected by Langya, all experienced fevers, and around half experienced fatigue, coughing, loss of appetite, and muscle pain. Between a third and half had muscle pain, nausea, headaches, and vomiting. Drawing from the full 35 patient sample set, over half showed a significant decrease in white blood cells, over a third had a low platelet count, and all experienced some level of liver failure.

Still, Wang Linfa, who was involved in the study, told Global Times that the cases of Langya to date have not been fatal or yielded more serious diseases, and counseled against panic even though the virus remains cause for alert.

Taiwan’s CDC Deputy Director-General, Chuang Jen-hsiang, was also clear about the lack of human-to-human viral transmissions. Patients did not infect their immediate circles, which suggests a low transmission rate in the virus’s current form. Taiwan’s CDC reported on the study to assure citizens that it would be taking more steps to standardize its genomic sequencing processes, and monitor the virus going forward.

Henipaviruses, which usually affect bats and shrews, are quite susceptible to zoonotic transfer events (i.e., infection from other species to humans), so it is understandable that any instance of transfer would be a site of speculation and concern. But in the middle of a three-year COVID-19 pandemic with a death count of over 6.42 million, media sources would do well to present existing data about new infectious diseases with greater care. Transmit such data cautiously yourselves.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.