Fever, headaches, muscle aches, chills, and a characteristic rash – monkeypox is a disease which causes disgust and panic for most of us. Now Oxford University has joined a new Monkeypox Consortium with 12 other leading scientific research institutes across the UK to better understand the virus.
Scientifically, monkeypox is an infection caused by a DNA virus in the Poxviridae family’s Orthopoxvirus genus. It is a zoonotic infection, meaning animals with monkeypox can transmit the virus to humans. However, sexual, skin-to-skin, and prolonged in-person contact with infected individuals have been cited as the most common routes of transmission. Asymptomatic cases can also occur, but the likelihood of transmitting the virus from asymptomatic individuals is still being investigated.
A Science article cited monkeypox as a “second public health threat” that evolved during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, according to the Daily Mail, a Texas man recovering from monkeypox claimed that the disease is “100 times worse” than COVID-19, stating that his swollen lymph nodes and skin eruptions made him look “like a frog” and feel as if his skin was exposed to a potato peeler. As of October 31, 2022, a total of 3,704 monkeypox cases have been reported in the UK. Although monkeypox is not considered a deadly disease, the fatality rate of the condition has recently been between 3% and 6%.
To handle the monkeypox outbreak more efficiently, 25 leading scientists are now doing research as part of the Consortium Co-led by The Pirbright Institute and the MRC-University of Glasgow Center for Virus Research, the Consortium has the goal of conducting more research on diagnostic tests, vaccine effectiveness, and treatment options. UK Research and Innovation has allocated £2 million funding to support the Consortium.
Co-leader of the Consortium at The Pirbright Institute, Bryam Charleston, said there are huge implications of the current monkeypox outbreak. “As well as tackling the current outbreak, we also need to be fully prepared for the next outbreak, because worldwide there’s a huge reservoir of infection,” Charleston wrote, adding. “One of the key ways we can do this is to develop rapid tests, which are very important to help clinicians on the front line to manage the disease.”
Oxford University scientists Tao Dong and Miles Carroll are leading research groups to contribute to our understanding of immune response mechanisms and the identification of monkeypox, respectively. Dong’s research team is specifically investigating T cell responses to the virus and the cross-reactivity of the smallpox vaccine against monkeypox.Carroll’s research team is developing a lateral flow device for a more accurate diagnosis of the disease.
Having worked on investigating T cell responses for almost 30 years, Dong stated that her research area used to be neglected because of the low infection and fatality rates associated with monkeypox, telling Cherwell: “The monkeypox virus is very similar to the eradicated smallpox virus and so vaccines against smallpox have been effectively used to reduce monkeypox infections without specific studies into the mechanisms.”
Dong was invited to the Consortium by influential pox virus expert Geoff Smith, due to her previous work on T cell responses to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. She was happy to join the research, as her group’s main goal is to use its collective expertise to contribute to the understanding of a host system’s immune responses to infectious pathogens. “This information is valuable for both infection control and vaccination strategies,” said Dong.
Dong told Cherwell that finding participants for her research was the main challenge. However, she is grateful for patients’ and volunteers’ willingness to “(take) part in the vaccine trials that provide us with our samples”. At the moment, she feels a pressing need to contribute to our knowledge about the virus. “Now that monkeypox infections are on a sharp increase across the world it is timely to fully understand immune responses to the virus,” she stated.