Researchers investigating the monkeypox virus said it appears to have mutated at an unprecedented rate — much quicker than experts initially predicted, according to a new study.
The study, which was published in the medical journal Nature Medicine on Thursday, found that there were an average of 50 mutations in samples from this year when only up to 10 would typically be expected.
In the study, a group of Portuguese researchers analyzed the first monkeypox sequence publicly released on May 20, along with 14 additional sequences released before May 27.
Researchers discovered around 50 genetic variations in the viruses, a figure six to 12 times higher than previous studies of other orthopoxviruses, a family of viruses to which monkeypox belongs.
The study said the mutation rate may suggest a case of “accelerated evolution.”
João Paulo Gomes, a co-author and the head of the Genomics and Bioinformatics Unit at the National Institute of Health in Portugal, said the number of mutations was “quite unexpected.”
“Considering that this 2022 monkeypox virus is likely a descendant of the one in the 2017 Nigeria outbreak, one would expect no more than five to 10 additional mutations instead of the observed about 50 mutations,” he told Newsweek.
“We hope that now, specialized groups will perform laboratory experiments in order to understand if this 2022 virus has increased its transmissibility.”
There are currently more than 3,500 cases of the virus in 44 countries globally.
Monkeypox, a viral infection that causes skin lesions, is endemic in certain parts of Africa. But the current outbreak has hit countries where the virus does not usually spread, sparking concern.
The CDC said there had also been reports of transmission among family members and close contacts.
The virus can spread through the sharing of bodily fluids or clothing with an infected person or animal. It can also be contracted by breathing in respiratory droplets while speaking to someone.
Monkeypox can cause blisters and pimples on the skin. Patients also report having rashes after the blisters.
The Biden administration announced this week that tests for the virus will be shipped to commercial laboratories in a scramble to expand testing and speed up diagnoses as confirmed cases nationwide hit 173 as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Monkeypox can infect anyone, but a number of the cases in the US and Europe have been found in gay men, leading health officials to push to raise awareness in the community even as tests remain scarce and only people who meet strict criteria like having lesions can even get tested.
The UK recently announced a vaccine rollout for gay and bisexual men only.