Coordinating at-home testing for monkeypox may provide opportunities for clinical laboratories to add value for their physician clients
Microbiologists and clinical laboratory managers who oversee medical laboratory tests for monkeypox (aka, mpox) will be interested to learn that, according to the US Centers of Disease Control (CDC), cases per day have dropped into the single digits.
The United States led the world in cases during the 2022-2023 outbreak, according to the most recent CDC statistics. As of February 15, the US has reported 30,193 cases of monkeypox with 32 deaths.
Nevertheless, January 31 was the day that the US public health emergency involving monkeypox officially expired. Data from the World Health Organization shows the number of daily monkeypox cases in most countries around the world is declining, although numbers of cases are still increasing in some South American countries.
The global monkeypox outbreak appears to have slowed considerably, but are we out of the woods?
“There were concerns that there would be ongoing transmission and that ongoing transmission would become endemic in the United States like other STIs: gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis. We have not seen that occur,” Jonathan Mermin, MD (above), Director of the National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention at the CDC, told CNN.”We are now seeing three to four cases a day in the United States, and it continues to decline. And we see the possibility of getting to zero as real.” This decline in monkeypox test corresponds with a similar decline in COVID-19 clinical laboratory testing as well. (Photo Copyright: CDC.)
Untried Vaccine and At-home Testing for Monkeypox
When the monkeypox outbreak began in May of 2022, there were concerns about the US’ level of preparedness for dealing with a second pandemic while also battling COVID-19. But monkeypox was not entirely unknown to the scientific and medical communities.
Monkeypox first appeared in 1958 amongst a colony of monkeys being kept for research. The origin of the disease is not known. According to the CDC, the first reported human case of monkeypox was in 1970. Prior to the 2022 outbreak, most cases were found in central and western African countries. Cases outside of those areas could be traced back to travel from those specific countries.
When cases of monkeypox first appeared in the US, public health officials were concerned about the availability of testing, vaccines, and treatments. As CNN reported, though there was a new vaccine available, its effectiveness against monkeypox had never been tested on humans.
That treatment, known as TPOXX (Tecovirimat), was an antiviral drug approved by the FDA in 2018 to treat smallpox in adults and children, according to an FDA factsheet. The drug was difficult to obtain, and it took until August of 2022 for the federal government to declare monkeypox a public health emergency. That allowed it to deploy emergency funds towards fighting the outbreak.
The demographic found to be at the highest risk of monkeypox infection were men who have sex with other men. According to MedPage Today, “Daskalakis had both pandemic experience as former senior lead on equity in COVID-19 data and engagement for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and an ‘in’ with the LGBTQ+ community from his work in HIV prevention and his transparency about being a gay man.”
When comparing monkeypox to HIV, Daskalakis said, “This one [monkeypox], you don’t have to change behaviors for generations; it’s for a few months. Once you build your force field of immunity with vaccines, people can make their own informed decisions about their risk.”
Opportunities for Clinical Laboratories
So, how should clinical laboratories respond if there’s another monkeypox flare up?
Daskalakis advocates for home testing. “People that are going to order home tests are going to be motivated to action in other ways. And so, thinking about HIV home testing, which was the grandparent of COVID-19 home testing, this really shows us how you reach people you’re not going to reach when you have lab-based, provider-only testing … When you look at the HIV home testing data from the CDC, 26% of the people that ordered a home test had never been tested before. That is way higher than what you would expect,” he told MedPage Today.
We are not out of the woods in regard to monkeypox, vigilance is still required. But with existing harm reduction measures in the most vulnerable community, at-home testing and advancements in vaccines could help us keep our numbers as low as possible.
Officials also worry about diminishing smallpox vaccinations, which offered people protection against the infectious disease
Monkeypox challenges from the current outbreak have dogged public health agencies even though the disease was first identified more than 50 years ago. That is because the virus has found new avenues of infection. These developments will be relevant for the nation’s clinical laboratories, which are often the first healthcare providers to confirm a suspected case is positive for monkeypox and notify a public health laboratory about the positive test result.
The latest monkeypox numbers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that, as of September 6, the US has identified 19,962 cases in the 2022 outbreak, while worldwide the case number is 52,037.
Workers at clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups will gain from understanding why monkeypox has spread beyond its traditional geography.
“Monkeypox symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, fever, and body aches that result in red bumps on hands, feet, mouth, and genitals,” Bodhraj Acharya, PhD (above), of the Laboratory Alliance of Central New York, told Dark Daily. “It spreads by close contact, respiratory droplets, lesions, and bodily fluids.” Clinical laboratories engaged in testing for monkeypox will want to stay alert to patients presenting with such symptoms. (Photo copyright: Laboratory Alliance of Central New York.)
African Public Health Officials Saw New Monkeypox Challenges Coming
Researchers and public health experts have been perplexed about how and why the latest monkeypox outbreak has occurred so aggressively beyond its origin in rural Central Africa.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), most monkeypox cases since 1970 have been reported from rural rainforest regions in Central and Western Africa.
Thus, a monkeypox outbreak occurring in Europe and the United States in 2022 has puzzled virologists and microbiologists because it does not follow the historical pattern of the virus’ spread. For example, the first monkeypox case in the US arrived in May from a Massachusetts patient who had traveled to Canada, a state press release noted.
Before the Nigerian outbreak, the virus rose from rural areas where hunters came in close contact with animals. The illness resulted in lesions on the face, hands, and feet, Nature wrote of Yinka-Ogunleye’s recollections.
However, after 2017, she and other epidemiologists warned peers that the virus was spreading in new ways and in urban settings. For example, infected people sometimes had genital lesions, suggesting that the virus might spread through human sexual contact.
Now, in 2022, “the world is paying the price for not having responded adequately” in 2017, Yinka-Ogunleye told Nature.
Lack of Smallpox Vaccination Increases Monkeypox Challenges
The waning effects of smallpox vaccinations, which ended in 1980 after smallpox was basically eradicated from the world, may have opened the door for monkeypox to spread earlier this year. Smallpox vaccines provided some protection against monkeypox, but by now three generations of people have not received smallpox inoculations.
“Eyebrows were raised when multiple cases of monkeypox were reported from various non-endemic countries starting in May of 2022,” Acharya said. “Due to genetic similarity, smallpox vaccination provided some cross-protection, but the termination of smallpox vaccination could have provided ground for the recent insurgence and spread of monkeypox.”
Trying to jumpstart a new monkeypox vaccination campaign on the heels of COVID-19 shots may be met with resistance from a virus-weary public. But other options at preventing the current spread of monkeypox may present challenges as well, such as trying to curtail sexual activity among affected population, the BBC reported.
“The easiest way to prevent it is to close down all highly active sexual networks for a couple of months until it goes away, but I don’t think that will ever happen. Do you?” Paul Hunter, PhD, Professor of Medicine at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, told the BBC.
For medical laboratory workers and others who may find themselves testing for the disease in the future, the biggest lessons from current monkeypox challenges are twofold: The virus has invaded new geography, and discontinued smallpox vaccination campaigns may have left younger people exposed to monkeypox.