A new viral outbreak is testing whether the world has learned anything from COVID.
Updated at 9:51 a.m. on May 20, 2022
Yesterday afternoon, I called the UCLA epidemiologist Anne Rimoin to ask about the European outbreak of monkeypox—a rare but potentially severe viral illness with dozens of confirmed or suspected cases in the United Kingdom, Spain, and Portugal. “If we see those clusters, given the amount of travel between the United States and Europe, I wouldn’t be surprised to see cases here,” Rimoin, who studies the disease, told me. Ten minutes later, she stopped mid-sentence to say that a colleague had just texted her a press release: “Massachusetts Public Health Officials Confirm Case of Monkeypox.”
The virus behind monkeypox is a close relative of the one that caused smallpox but is less deadly and less transmissible, causing symptoms that include fever and a rash. Endemic to western and central Africa, it was first discovered in laboratory monkeys in 1958—hence the name—but the wild animals that harbor the virus are probably rodents. The virus occasionally spills over into humans, and such infections have become more common in recent decades. Rarely, monkeypox makes it to other continents, and when it does, outbreaks “are so small, they’re measured in single digits,” Thomas Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. The only significant American outbreak occurred in 2003, when a shipment of Ghanaian rodents spread the virus to prairie dogs in Illinois, which were sold as pets and infected up to 47 people, none fatally. Just last year, two travelers independently carried the virus to the U.S. from Nigeria but infected no one else.