Health officials disinfect playground equipment. Getty Images
  • Health officials in Kazakhstan are refuting reports that a new disease is spreading in that country.
  • A report this week from China said there is a new disease that may be deadlier than COVID-19.
  • Experts in the United States say it’s possible this disease may actually be misdiagnosed COVID-19 cases or a form of bubonic plague.
  • Many bacteria, fungi, and viruses are known to cause pneumonia.

With the world watching the rise of COVID-19, a report of a potentially deadly virus has made international headlines due to fears there could be another outbreak.

But now officials are refuting those early reports.

We talked to experts about what we know of the potential new disease.

How it started

Headlines were made after the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan warned citizens Thursday that a potentially new disease that causes severe pneumonia may be circulating in the Central Asian country.

Today, the health ministry in Kazakhstan put out a statement denying that there’s a new type of pneumonia outbreak.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also said Friday that Kazakhstan’s pneumonia cases, which could wind up being COVID-19, are on their radar.

“The upward trajectory of COVID-19 in the country would suggest that many of these cases are in fact undiagnosed cases of COVID-19,” Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, announced in an online briefing.

The virus’s mortality rate is allegedly deadlier than that of the current coronavirus, the South China Morning Post reported.

Exactly what the virus is remains unknown. According to the SCMP, some health officials say it may only be pneumonia.

“At this stage, it could be a lot of things,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and the head of the biology department at Texas A&M University Texarkana. But one theory that comes to mind is a rodent-to-human transmitted plague, Neuman added.

An uptick in pneumonia cases

Like the rest of the world, Kazakhstan has been battling COVID-19 for the past few months.

The country of about 18 million people has reported about 50,000 coronavirus cases and 260 deaths.

In March, the country declared a state of emergency. Lockdowns remained in place until the middle of May.

Then a new surge of pneumonia cases were reported that were more severe than the pneumonia cases caused by COVID-19.

The SCMP reported that since mid-June, 500 patients in three locations — the provinces Atyrau and Aktobe, along with the city of Shymkent — have had pneumonia. Thirty of them were in critical condition.

According to the Chinese Embassy’s statement, the recent uptick in pneumonia cases accounts for over a third of pneumonia-linked deaths in the country since the start of 2020.

Could be COVID-19 or other known disease

Scientists don’t know exactly what’s causing these pneumonia cases.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar for Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, thinks the new pneumonia cases are more of the coronavirus.

“I have a strong suspicion that the pneumonia is caused by the novel coronavirus and there may be a lack of diagnostic capacity,” Adalja told Healthline.

“I would want to know if this coronavirus has been definitively ruled out given the world pandemic we are in,” Adalja added.

Neuman says there may be another reality in which this is a different infection that originated in rodents.

“Rodents in Kazakhstan have a famously high diversity of bacteria related to the one that caused the black plague, and there is a pneumonia-like form of plague that would be highly fatal,” Neuman said.

Neuman said that just a few days ago, a warning was issued in the part of Russia bordering Kazakhstan and Mongolia advising against hunting marmots, a type of rodent, due to fear of a new plague outbreak.

“That is only one possibility out of many, but it’s where I would start, if I were in charge of figuring out the cause,” Neuman told Healthline.

In general, this sort of plague shouldn’t pass readily from human to human, according to Neuman.

He suspects that right now it’s likely being passed from rodents to humans.

If the infection is actually passing from person to person, it could be something entirely different, Neuman added.

“It’s just a case where we would need more details in order to be sure,” Neuman said.

How pneumonia affects the body

According to Adalja, “there are other viruses and bacteria that could be responsible [for this pneumonia].”

Many bacteria, fungi, and viruses are known to cause pneumonia.

The most common bacterial type is caused by a pathogen named Streptococcus pneumoniae and develops after the flu or common cold.

In general, bacterial pneumonias are the most severe and trigger symptoms that require medical care.

There are also viruses that can infect the upper respiratory system and cause pneumonia. The most common cause of viral pneumonia is the flu. Viral pneumonias typically are less severe and shorter than bacterial pneumonias.

“With acute pneumonia presenting the way they described it, it is likely to be bacterial or viral,” Adalja said.

Then there are fungal pneumonias, most commonly detected in people with compromised immune systems or chronic health issues.

But these other types of pneumonia are usually easy to diagnose, according to Adalja.

To identify the pathogen causing the infection, a blood test needs to be performed.

Pneumonia symptoms vary, depending on a person’s health and the pathogen behind the infection.

The most common sign is a cough, sometimes with green or yellow phlegm.

People with pneumonia also experience fever, difficulty breathing, chest pain, nausea, and fatigue.

Pneumonia can be tricky to diagnose. The symptoms are often so varied, and frequently mistaken for the cold or flu, that it can be hard to pinpoint what’s going on in the body.

Lots of unknowns, much to learn

Health experts say we need more insight into the new cases to understand how big of a threat there may be.

We really need more data to determine whether the outbreak in Kazakhstan is simply more coronavirus cases or if we’re dealing with an entirely new pathogen.

The bottom line

A potentially new disease that causes severe pneumonia has been making headlines after it was detected in Kazakhstan in Central Asia. Local officials have refuted early reports and pointed to potential cases of COVID-19.

However, what’s causing these new pneumonia cases remains unknown, and scientists will need to continue to monitor the situation to get a clearer understanding of the outbreak.

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