Despite China death, hantavirus is less of a threat than coronavirus – expert explains why

The couple were found to have been afflicted with a hantavirus, the first known cases of the disease in the US. On March 24 of this year, Chinese state media confirmed a man from Yunnan Province travelling to Shandong Province for work had died of hantavirus. Speaking to, Professor Jon Cohen, an infectious disease expert of Brighton and Sussex Medical School explained: “There are two families of hantaviruses, one of which causes a pneumonia type illness, another which involves kidneys and kidney failure and a bleeding problem.

“Hantavirus is not a single virus, it’s a family of viruses.”


The pneumonia type illness is more common in North America.

Conversely, kidney issues are more prevalent in Europe and Asia.

The Four Corners is the intersection of the US states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

The illness which struck down the couple in 1993 was found to have been spread by deer mice droppings which with particles of the virus transmitted in enclosed spaces.

With much of the world gripped with the coronavirus pandemic, news of the death has led some to be concerned about another deadly outbreak. 

Professor Cohen sought to ease concerns: “It’s not a new family of viruses, they’ve been around for quite a long time, they exist in many places around the world.

“There’s never been any serious epidemics or outbreaks in the same way as what happened with coronavirus and it’s transmitted in a completely different way.

“This is what’s called a zoonosis, so it’s associated usually with rodents, it’s in a very different category to coronavirus and control of the virus is largely about controlling human contact with infected animals.”

The World Health Organisation says there are around 100 deaths each year due to hantavirus.

This is out of 10,000 reported cases resulting in a mortality rate of just one percent.

Nations are not required to report cases to the WHO as they are not believed to be of international concern.


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Though human to human transmission is thought by some experts to not be possible, such transmission was thought to have been detected in Argentina back in 1996.

Professor Cohen added: “I think they are two things to say, I don’t think there is good evidence of human to human spread.

“My understanding, certainly, is that this is not normally human to human spread.”

But, he noted: “It’s not impossible.

“It could be done that way but you have to remember when there are what appear to be small outbreaks of these infections which could be interpreted as human to human spread, it’s quite difficult to determine what is the mechanism by which people are being infected.”

An example used is a family living in a small accommodation, with a rat infestation, where the rats have hantavirus.

He said if members of the family got hantavirus : “It’s tricky to be sure if people in that family get infected from each other or if they got infected from the same animal, so I think you have to be a little bit careful about assuming that is something that could happen.

“It’s certainly not a major route of transmission in the way coronavirus is obviously.”

Recalling the Four Corners outbreak, he adds: “One of the questions that came up, I remember at the time, why was it that suddenly there’d been this upsurge in cases of this severe hemorrhagic pneumonia? There were some very interesting reports published that this was probably one of the earlier signs of changes in ecology as a consequence of climate change.”

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