Ebola-like virus affecting monkeys set to cross over to humans like HIV

A deadly virus has been tearing through the monkey population – and threatens to cross over into humans.

The scientific community fears the virus has worked out how to access human cells and multiply itself in the human body.

It can reportedly even dodge the immune mechanisms we rely on to defend against animal viruses such as this.

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So far no human infections have been recorded and we don't yet know what effect the disease would have on people, although in monkeys the symptoms have resembled those consistent with the Ebola virus.

A team at the University of Colorado Boulder have their eye on the virus and compared it to HIV, which originated in African monkeys.

Senior author Sara Sawyer, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the university, said: “This animal virus has figured out how to gain access to human cells, multiply itself, and escape some of the important immune mechanisms we would expect to protect us from an animal virus.

“That’s pretty rare. We should be paying attention to it.”

The virus is a type of arterivirus, which usually circulate among horses, pigs, rodents and monkeys.

Viruses in animals are not uncommon – there are thousands of them across the globe and the majority cause no problems for humanity.

However, in recent years there has been an increase in the number of animal viruses making the leap to humans, who don't have the immune systems to detect and destroy these unfamiliar diseases.

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Keeping an eye on diseases like this is crucial, as it could potentially help humanity avoid another pandemic after the world was brought to a grinding halt by the coronavirus back in 2020.

Other diseases recently caused by viruses that originated in animals include the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) in 2003.

Professor Sawyer has studied viruses leaping from animals to humans for 15 years.

In a recent study they examined simian hemorrhagic fever virus (SHFV), which has caused the deadly outbreaks of the Ebola-like virus in captive macaques since the 1960s, and discovered that the disease attacked immune cells in a similar way to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) that came before it.

Cody Warren, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at The Ohio State University, said: “The similarities are profound between this virus and the simian viruses that gave rise to the HIV pandemic.

“Just because we haven’t diagnosed a human arterivirus infection yet doesn’t mean that no human has been exposed. We haven’t been looking.”

Sawyer's team was keen to stress that just because they were looking into the virus, didn't mean there was another pandemic on the horizon – they still don't know whether the virus will ever jump to humans in the first place, let alone cause an outbreak of a deadly disease.

However, they did say that more viruses will undoubtedly jump to humans at some point, and that new diseases affecting mankind were inevitable.

Sawyer said: “COVID is just the latest in a long string of spillover events from animals to humans, some of which have erupted into global catastrophes.

“Our hope is that by raising awareness of the viruses that we should be looking out for, we can get ahead of this so that if human infections begin to occur, we’re on it quickly.”

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