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What is the Monkey B virus?

Zoonotic diseases have been at the forefront of media attention since COVID-19 began to spread in late 2019. Yet another disease has been reported to have taken a human life in China — the Monkey B virus.

Monkey B virus, zoonotic
Macaque monkeys are the primary vector by which the Monkey B virus is spread.
Source: Mieciu K2, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

A 53-year-old man who contracted the virus in March of this year is reportedly the first to die from the disease in China. Blister fluid, blood, nasal swab, throat swab, and plasma were collected from the patient that confirmed the presence of the Monkey B virus — commonly referred to as herpes B, herpesvirus simiae, and herpesvirus B.

As with many infectious diseases, the symptoms are easily mistaken for numerous other conditions. Initial symptoms may include fever, muscle ache, chills, fatigue and headaches. These symptoms can present themselves anywhere between a single day to three weeks following the initial infection. However, it is the late-stage symptoms that make the disease so threatening. As the virus can attack the central nervous system, later symptoms can include swelling of the brain and spinal cord resulting in potentially fatal encephalitis.

There is no current fear that the disease is likely to become as widespread as COVID-19. Monkey B virus is among the rarer zoonotic conditions due to its method of transmission. The disease is spread from macaque monkeys and is hosted in the saliva, faeces, urine, brain, or spinal cord tissue. 

While the virus can survive for several hours on surfaces, the necessity of contact with a macaque monkey limits the potential spread to those in proximity to the animals. This places individuals such as veterinarians, lab workers, farm workers, or those working in the monkey’s natural habitat at risk. The individual in China that contracted the virus was himself a veterinarian.

Human-to-human transmission has so far not been documented. As per the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only fifty people have contracted the Monkey B virus since its identification, resulting in just 21 deaths. 

While the condition is unlikely to cause the next major pandemic, it does highlight an abundance of caution within the media regarding zoonotic diseases. This group of conditions account for a large number of human diseases, from COVID-19 to malaria. Concerningly, climate change and habitat encroachment are further exposing humans to zoonotic conditions, raising the risks of future outbreaks.

As a study published last year outlined, “zoonotic diseases have been increasing globally as well as in India. Of 1407 human pathogens, 816 were zoonotic…These include 538 bacteria and rickettsia, 317 fungi, 208 viruses, 287 helminths, and 57 protozoa. The study also highlighted that as many as 177 (thirteen percent) of the total pathogens were emerging or reemerging, and of these 130 (75 percent) were classified as zoonoses.” 

Biodiversity has been cited as a major concern with regards to these diseases. While previously many diseases were preserved within ecological buffer zones such as rainforests, habitat destruction for the purpose of urbanisation or building farmland has encroached on these areas. Due to this, many species have been lost. 

An example of this phenomenon is in mosquito species. Where multiple species may exist in a single area in a natural environment, urban areas and farmland create conditions in which vast, single species breeding populations can exist. Should a disease such as malaria spread within this population, the single-species nature of the group allows rapid proliferation, which, in turn, allows infection of humans at a more rapid rate.

As previously noted by Health Issues India, “rates of zoonotic diseases have shown a correlation with those living in areas close to fragmented forests and in areas where deforestation occurs. There are numerous examples of deforestation playing a role in the spread of zoonotic infections. Lyme disease, also spread by ticks, has shown to increase in areas associated with fragmented forests and deforestation in the US. Ebola is another example of this concept. The disease is currently raging in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

“The greatest burden of zoonotic disease is borne by poor people, but emerging infectious diseases impact everyone, with monetary losses of emerging infectious disease much greater in high-income countries,” states the Convention on Biological Diversity. “Given that a single zoonotic outbreak can incur trillions of US dollars in costs across the globe, prevention is significantly more cost-effective than response.”

COVID-19 has been the prime example of the havoc that zoonotic conditions can cause. While the transmission process of the Monkey B virus may not allow a similar toll of devastation, there are many other zoonotic conditions with conditions primed for them to take on this mantle. Failure to prepare for this eventuality could see yet more future pandemic outbreaks.

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