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Technician at Japan animal testing lab infected with deadly virus carried by monkeys

Kagoshima City Hall is seen in Kagoshima, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Feb. 28, 2019. (Mainichi/Ran Kanno)

KAGOSHIMA -- A technician at a pharmaceutical research company's facility in this southwestern Japan city is receiving treatment after being infected with a deadly herpes virus from monkeys used for animal testing.

The Kagoshima Municipal Government and the research firm Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories Ltd. (SNBL) said the worker had been infected with the herpes B virus, which is carried by monkeys. Neither elaborated on the technician's condition.

It is exceedingly rare for a human to contract the virus, with this being the first confirmed case in Japan. Only around 50 infections are known to have taken place overseas.

The majority of past cases were also caused by direct contact with the monkeys at animal testing facilities. The National Institute of Infectious Diseases said, "Ordinarily, the virus doesn't travel from person to person, so there are almost no chances of it spreading further."

Herpes virus B, a variant of the herpes virus, is present in a significant proportion of monkeys in the macaque family, including the Rhesus macaque and the Japanese macaque. It is not airborne, but if a person is bitten by a monkey with the virus, it produces symptoms including a fever and abnormalities to their sense of touch. If the disease becomes more serious, it can affect the nervous system and leave lasting damage, or even result in death.

According to the city government and others, the technician was testing the safety of a drug at its developmental stage on the monkeys at the company's Drug Safety Research Laboratories when the infection occurred.

The technician reportedly complained of a headache and fever in February, and then underwent a medical examination. In November, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases concluded that the worker had contracted herpes virus B.

The technician was not bitten or scratched by the animals, meaning it is very likely that they instead came into direct contact with the monkeys' saliva or excrement.

(Japanese original by Ran Kanno, Kagoshima Bureau)

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