Langya virus: What the new disease detected in China means for Australia

Australians are being warned to stay vigilant after the identification of a new virus in China, with experts saying it's a "very different" virus to Covid-19.

An article recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) revealed there had been 35 cases of Langya Henipavirus, known as "Langya" or "LayV" in the Shandong and Henan provinces.

The cases were identified between 2018 to 2021 and the virus has only been formally identified this week, the ABC reported.

It is believed the virus is passed to humans by shrews, however, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission. None of the 35 patients have died.

The news of the virus, which is part of the Henipavirus family, spread quickly.

This photo taken on July 20, 2022 shows a laboratory technician working at a Covid-19 testing facility in Dingxi, in China's northwestern Gansu province. The Langya virus was identified in two provinces in China
The Langya virus was detected in China and researchers have been quick to get the information out. Source: AFP via Getty Images

However, infectious disease expert Professor Paul Griffin says drawing comparisons between Langya and Covid-19 probably isn't warranted.

"I can certainly appreciate how many people hearing about another virus will be having some flashbacks to the early days of Covid," he told Yahoo News Australia.

"But, you know, this is a very different virus."

Prof Griffin said Langya appears to be a spillover from animals and the fact that the 35 cases do not appear to be linked suggests there was no human-to-human transmission.

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With zoonotic infections, or "infections that are passed from animals to people", it is more concerning when they can be passed from person-to-person, he added.

Prof Griffin said one positive about the news of the Langya virus shows is how effectively the information is being shared.

"I think the main thing that this really shows is the strength of the monitoring and assessment that was done on these people," he said.

He noted the researchers were able to communicate their findings efficiently and publish their work in a reputable journal to share with the world.

A Water Shrew sits on the ground.
It appears there has not been any human-to-human transmission. Source: AAP

Australians should remain vigilant

In a statement from the Australian Science Media Centre, Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake from the Australian National University said the announcement of Langya is "not surprising".

"Over the last five decades, there have been around fifty new infections described," he said.

"The vast majority, such as LayV, monkeypox and Covid-19, are viruses that have jumped from the animal to the human world."

While there is no evidence yet to suggest Langya is jumping from human to human, Prof Senanayake says there is still reason to remain vigilant.

People are seen wearing face masks in the CBD of Brisbane, Wednesday, July 20, 2022.
While we should remain vigilant, given there is no evidence of human-to-human contact, there is little concern for Australia. Source: AAP

"The reason to be vigilant about this virus though, is that it is a henipavirus, which comes from the same family as Hendra and Nipah, both of which have caused deaths in humans," he said.

"Nipah has also been associated with person-to-person transmission."

Dr Nick Fountain-Jones, from the School of Natural Sciences at the University of Tasmania, said that just because we're still stuck in the Covid-19 pandemic, it "does not mean another isn't around the corner".

He said more funding dedicated to research, surveillance and projects are crucial to aid in any future pandemics.

Are we seeing more new viruses emerge now?

Prof Griffin has been an infectious disease expert long before Covid-19 essentially changed the world in 2020.

New viruses emerging is nothing new, though Prof Griffin did have some ideas on why it feels as though there is a new illness threatening humans every other month.

He said part of it is likely due to how we share information and our heightened awareness thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another part of it is our ability to detect viruses, thanks to advancements in technology.

"Part of it is our technology has improved as well. So we're better at finding these sorts of things," he said.

The emergence rate of new viruses could be slightly quicker than before and factors such as climate change, closer proximity to animals and deforestation could be related to this, he added.

However, Prof Griffin believes our ability to identify viruses quickly and get the information out in a timely fashion is why we're seeing more news about emerging viruses.

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