Monkeypox: The New Viral Threat?


As monkeypox cases spread across the globe, public health officials grappling with rising infections rush to assess reserves of vaccines and treatments. However, critical to stopping the spread at its source is the availability of rapid and highly accurate diagnostic tools, with genomics firms such as BGI Group developing testing kits that can detect monkeypox in as little as 40 minutes.

After more than two years of frenetic activity advising on the world’s pandemic response, virologists enjoyed a welcome break as much of the globe made an uneasy peace with Covid-19. “It’s been quite nice really,” said Jonathan Ball, professor of virology at the University of Nottingham.

However, in recent weeks, demand for virologists has returned. Monkeypox, an unpleasant but, for most people, non-fatal blistering disease, has been spreading around the world at an alarming rate.

First discovered in monkeys in a Danish laboratory in 1958, monkeypox is caused by a virus from the Orthopoxvirus family – the same family as the smallpox virus. Symptoms of the two infections are largely reminiscent of the other, although monkeypox is far less deadly.

Usually confined to central and west Africa, monkeypox is now appearing as far afield as Sweden, Spain, Portugal, the US, and Australia. According to the World Health Organisation, there are now 780 confirmed cases of monkeypox in countries where the virus is not usually found. 

“Given that we’re seeing this expansion of confirmed cases globally, we have a sense that no one has their arms around this to know how large and expansive it might be,” said Jennifer McQuiston, deputy director at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. “We don’t understand how many other cases could be out there in the UK, for example, with undefined chains of transmission.”

As more than 20 countries worldwide grapple with outbreaks of monkeypox, public health officials are rushing to assess reserves of vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tools. Yet, as health officials attempt to curb infection, many are finding clinical diagnosis of monkeypox difficult. As the UK Government website warns, “(Monkeypox) is often confused with other infections such as chickenpox.” 

Scientists fear delays to diagnosis could lead to a wider circulation of monkeypox, as cases cannot be isolated in their infancy and close contacts cannot be monitored accurately. To overcome this challenge and support the expansion of diagnostic tools, China’s leading genomics firm BGI Group developed a monkeypox virus nucleic detection kit, which has recently obtained CE-IVDD approval to be sold in the European Union.

The testing kit uses the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method – a laboratory technique used for rapidly amplifying copies of a specific DNA segment – to detect the MPV-1 gene and MPV-2 gene fragment of the monkeypox virus. 

Delivering highly accurate results in as little as 40 minutes, BGI Group’s testing kit is set to play a critical role in helping find outbreaks faster, while also supporting healthcare professionals deploy the smallpox vaccine to monkeypox sufferers and their close contacts as part of a targeted “ring vaccination” strategy.

The development of this highly sensitive monkeypox testing kit builds on decades of research into infectious disease, with BGI Group also playing a key role in combatting other viral and bacterial outbreaks, from SARS and Ebola to E. coli and Covid-19.

Right at the beginning of the SARS outbreak in 2003, BGI Group completed the whole genome sequencing of four strains of the SARS virus in just 36 hours and developed a detection kit in 96 hours. Likewise, following the outbreak of a deadly E. coli epidemic in Germany in 2011, BGI Group completed the genome sequencing in as little as five days.

Building on this experience, BGI Group played a leading role in combatting the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Travelling to Freetown, Sierra Leone, BGI Group scientists provided on-the-ground assistance in sample testing, technical support and training, before developing a rapid Ebola detection reagent. BGI Group also built an Ebola virus mutation monitoring platform, which played a key role in limiting the spread of the epidemic.

BGI Group’s experience in combatting infectious disease does not stop there. Within days of the first Covid-19 case, BGI Group launched a 2,000 square-meter detection laboratory, processing 10,000 samples daily.  Nearly 100 of these Covid-19 testing laboratories have been established in more than 30 countries and regions worldwide, achieving a maximum testing capacity of 2 million samples per day, and with BGI Group supplying millions of SARS-CoV-2 test kits to more than 180 countries and regions.

Learning lessons from past outbreaks, it is clear completing whole genome sequencing at an early stage and making diagnostic testing readily available are critical to stopping an infection in its tracks. As such, many health officials are now prioritising plans to roll out diagnostic testing of monkeypox, particularly as cases begin to mount

While alarm grows around the current spread of monkeypox, most notably by President Biden who recently warned that “everybody should be concerned”, it is clear we have the tools at our fingertips to help curb this infectious disease. 

Smallpox vaccines which have been around for decades have proven to work effectively against monkeypox, while new diagnostic testing kits, such as those produced by BGI Group, are set to prove critical to stopping the spread of the disease at its source.

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