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Monkeypox Genome: What Do We Know?
By Kate Dalke

Public health officials were caught off guard this week when some fifty cases of human monkeypox, a virus never before seen in the Americas, appeared in the Midwestern United States. People became ill after contact with their infected pet prairie dogs, which apparently contracted the virus from an African rat that has been sold as an exotic pet.

People contracted the human monkeypox virus from pet prairie dogs.

“Not very much is known about the virus,” says Bernard Moss of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland.

There have been no animal models in which to study monkeypox, and there are virtually no studies of the biology of the virus. How much this will change now remains to be seen, says Moss.

What is known about the virus has been inferred from studying its genome.

Scientists sequenced the monkeypox genome in 2001. The virus belongs to the family of orthopoxviruses, a group that includes smallpox and cowpox. These viruses are all closely related and share 90 percent of their genes.

Smallpox and monkeypox appear to be distinct species. Smallpox is most similar to camel pox, a virus that is not known to infect humans.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently added monkeypox to its list of select agents, which means that the CDC must grant its approval to laboratories and research institutes intending to study monkeypox.

This week, the CDC recommended smallpox vaccinations—shown to be 85 percent effective in preventing monkeypox—for health care workers, investigators, and people who may come in contact with victims or infected animals.

In Africa, monkeypox is primarily a rodent virus, not a monkey virus. It’s called monkeypox because the virus was first isolated from a monkey.

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Meyer, H. et al. Outbreaks of Disease Suspected of Being Due to Human Monkeypox Virus Infection in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001. J Clin Microbiol 40, 2919-2921 (August 2002).
Shchelkunov, S. N. et al. Human monkeypox and smallpox viruses: genomic comparison. FEBS Letters 509, 66-70 (November 30, 2001).

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