Monkeypox continues to spread in the UK, with 78 cases confirmed. And now, some scientists have suggested there may be an indirect link to Covid.
Monkeypox has been identified in England and Scotland, but as of May 24, no cases have been identified in Wales or Northern Ireland. Other cases have been found in 19 countries including the UAE, Spain, Portugal, the US and Australia, the World Health Organisation said.
Monkeypox is a DNA viral illness that causes fever and a distinctive, bumpy rash. In some cases it can also cause headaches, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes and fatigue. The disease has been around for decades and the name comes from when it was first identified during an outbreak in monkeys in 1958.
Now, experts from London Medical Laboratory have said that Covid-19 may have “paved the way” for the outbreak and that widespread PCR testing for the disease would present significant new challenges.
“Though typically spread by contact with an infected animal, person-to-person cases are now being recorded in the UK,” Dr Quinton Fivelman, chief scientific officer at London Medical Laboratory, said. “The virus is likely spread by touching or sharing infected items like clothing and bedding, or by the respiratory droplets produced by sneezing or coughing,”
While monkeypox and Covid are entirely unrelated viruses medically, it is possible that Covid coincidentally created an environment fit for the global surge in monkeypox cases. That’s due to two factors.
Firstly, Covid-19 may have left some people with weakened immune systems. “New research from scientists in Cambridge indicates that some Covid patients show profound alterations in many immune cell types that persist for weeks or even months after Covid infection,” Dr Fivelman said. “This could lead to people with weakened immune systems being more susceptible to diseases such as monkeypox.”
Secondly, there is some evidence that many of us, even those who have never caught Covid, have less resistance to viruses because we have been out less and interacted less with other people during the pandemic.
“We’ve all been masked-up and had less exercise and exposure to the protection offered by sunshine’s vitamin D. Certainly for children, this lack of exposure to new viruses won’t have helped build robust immune systems,” said Dr Fivelman.
Another way the pandemic may be influencing the spread of monkeypox is through international travel. For many months, this was at a virtual standstill during the pandemic.
“Now it is once again largely unrestricted, families and friends from across continents are reuniting all at once,” said Dr Fivelman. “That presents a great opportunity for any opportunistic virus to spread.”
But remember, monkeypox is not like Covid
The good news is that, unlike the Covid-19 virus, the monkeypox virus is made of double-stranded DNA, which means that it is larger and heavier and unable to travel in the air as far as the tiny, single-stranded Covid RNA virus.
Once the rash forms a scab, in two to four weeks, people are no longer infectious. And most people will recover without any longterm implications.
Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, emphasised remembering these differences.
“The monkeypox outbreak continues to escalate, and is undoubtedly worrying. The extent of the community transmission of monkeypox, being observed here in the UK and now in several other countries around the world, is concerning,” he said.
“However, it is important to highlight that whilst it is understandable to compare monkeypox with Covid-19, it’s important to remember they are two different viruses with their own characteristics. A big monkeypox outbreak like this is still a very different situation to a Covid-19 pandemic.”
There is also no evidence of monkeypox being linked to Covid-19 vaccines, as some on social media have falsely claimed.