Could monkeypox mutate? Why virus could change like Covid - and what happens if it spreads to animals

Monkeypox is mainly spread by wild animals in parts of west or central Africa and can be caught from infected wild animals

Numerous cases of monkeypox in humans have been identified in the UK since 7 May, with the virus - usually confined to Africa - also being confirmed in a number of other countries across the globe.

Given that we’ve only just scrapped the last remaining Covid rules, it’s no surprise that many of us are questioning whether the monkeypox outbreak could lead us into another lockdown.

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Numerous cases of monkeypox in humans have been identified in the UK since 7 May

Although monkeypox has been described as relatively mild so far, one of the most worrying aspects of Covid was the virus’s ability to mutate and cause more serious symptoms. From Delta to Omicron, we’ve seen a number of variants, some worse than others, and each bringing its own lockdown rules.

So could the same thing happen with monkeypox? This is what you need to know.

Could monkeypox mutate?

Martin Michaelis, professor of molecular medicine at the University of Kent, said the monkeypox virus is a DNA virus, whose genome has been fairly stable in the past.

In comparison, SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, is an RNA virus that has a very high mutation rate and can evolve very quickly, with the risk of mutations in monkeypox being “substantially lower” than for Covid, explained Prof Michaelis.

However, he added that mutations in monkeypox do still happen and even a few or just one mutation may change the features of a virus.

“This would be of particular concern if we had continued human-to-human spread, which would give the monkeypox virus an opportunity to adapt better to humans,” said Prof Michaelis.

This is echoed by Hussain Abdeh, clinical director and superintendent pharmacist at Medicine Direct, who said viruses are “constantly mutating”, which they need to do “in order to survive”.

He said that we have seen several different variants of Covid as a result of the virus evolving to combat the various vaccines created to tackle the pandemic, so it is possible that monkeypox could also mutate.

But he added that due to monkeypox being a “far better-understood virus” than Covid, with much research already in existence, it would be easier to treat as a result.

Could monkeypox be passed to other mammals?

Monkeypox is mainly spread by wild animals in parts of west or central Africa and can be caught from infected wild animals. It’s thought to be spread by rodents, such as rats, mice and squirrels.

The virus is currently spreading between humans both in the UK and other countries outside its usual Africa base due to a recent outbreak, but Prof Michaelis said another concern is that the monkeypox virus might be introduced into animal reservoirs in places where it is not currently endemic.

He said in Africa, the main monkeypox reservoirs are anticipated to be different rodents such as Gambian pouched rats, dormice, and African squirrels, but rodent species in other countries, including pet species, are “likely to be also susceptible to this virus”.

For example, in 2003, there was a monkeypox outbreak in the US, which was caused by prairie dogs that had been housed with imported monkeypox virus-infected Gambian pouched rats.

Prof Michaelis said that consequently, “we could turn monkeypox into a disease that is endemic in animals in many more parts of the world and not just in the regions in central and west Africa, where it is normally found”.

“If this happened in the UK, this would probably result in more human cases here and would be associated with a risk of more dangerous variants developing,” he added.

For those wondering if pets could catch monkeypox, Mr Abdeh said although there have been no reported cases of pets catching monkeypox so far, scientists have said it is “theoretically possible”.