Whooping cough is now a superbug, and China’s mystery virus just spread to Japan and Thailand

By Arianne Cohen

There’s a lot to be worried about in epidemic world this week: The Democratic Republic of Congo is consumed by measles (6,000 deaths) and ebola (3,400 cases); whooping cough is now a superbug; and the mystery illness in China has jumped to Japan and Thailand.

A study published today in Vaccine finds that whooping cough has adapted to infect vaccinated people. “Put simply, the bacteria that cause whooping cough are becoming better at hiding and better at feeding — they’re morphing into a super bug,” says first author Laurence Luu, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of New South Wales.

Here’s the scary part: It’s possible for a vaccinated person to contract whooping cough bacteria without symptoms. This is disturbing, as whooping cough can be life-threatening for babies under 6 months old, as well as older people and those who haven’t received a booster in a decade. This explains why periodic epidemics have been popping up in highly vaccinated populations, such as Australia, where infection rates spiked in 2011 and 2016. A new vaccine is needed pronto, say the researchers.

Meanwhile, the as-of-yet-unnamed virus in China, which the media annoyingly refers to as the “SARS-like” virus, has spread to two individuals in Japan and Thailand, respectively. The virus was initially traced to a seafood market in Wuhan, China, but the market has been closed since January 1. The World Health Organization has yet to determine whether the virus can be transmitted person-to-person, but since no health workers have been infected, it does not currently appear to be highly contagious. China’s busiest travel period of the year, for Lunar New Year, is next week.


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