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University of Missouri scientists find viral mutations that help monkeypox spread

Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Southampton Community Healthcare workers distribute monkeypox vaccines at Tower Grove Pride in September. New research shows monkeypox mutations could make vaccines and treatments less effective.

A team of researchers at the University of Missouri has discovered viral mutations that are behind this year’s monkeypox outbreak.

Like the coronavirus, monkeypox evolves over time to become more hardy and infectious. Viruses can mutate through interactions with medications or the environment.

The team studied how different strains of the monkeypox virus had changed over decades. Most mutations fizzled out, but some were still present in viral sequences from 2022.

“We need to know the problem before we can solve it,” said professor Kamal Singh, who specializes in molecular biology and pathology.

After studying the monkeypox timeline, the scientists used a computer model to map where mutations were located in the virus. Some virus mutations are close to where a vaccine or antibody would interact with the virus, and that could make some treatments less effective.

“Drugs go and bind a certain part of the protein, a certain part of the enzyme. That’s how they interfere with function,” Singh said.

Studying mutations and where they’re located can help scientists make better monkeypox vaccines and treatments, he said. Two of the three drugs used to treat monkeypox bind close to that mutation.

“And obviously, that mutation will affect the binding of these two drugs,” Singh said. “And that is one reason the drugs may not be as effective as we think.”

The location of the mutations could also indicate the use of medications caused the virus to evolve, the researchers said. Knowing how the virus has changed will allow drugmakers to develop more effective treatments, Singh said.

The findings were published in the December issue of the Journal of Autoimmunity.

Monkeypox has infected 169 people in Missouri and thousands more nationwide, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It causes fever, sores and fatigue and is spread through contact with the lesions of an infected person. It can also be spread through respiratory secretions when people are close together.

Risk factors for getting sick include kissing, cuddling or sex with an infected person. Transmission is most likely in places where people are minimally clothed and close together, including nightclubs.

In the United States, the virus is mainly spreading among people who have sex with men who have sex with men, though monkeypox can infect people of all sexual identities and genders.

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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