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Researchers hunt monkeypox in mummified Egyptian animals

A group of researchers have called for tracking the history of the monkeypox virus in the mummies of animals, as more studies are revealing the importance of the relationship between humans and animals in ancient Egypt.
The mummies of cats and other felines are displayed after the announcement of a new discovery carried out by an Egyptian archaeological team in Giza's Saqqara necropolis, south of the capital Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 23, 2019.

CAIRO — In correspondence published Oct. 25 by The Lancet Microbe, a journal that publishes research on clinically relevant microbes at all scales, researchers from Upstate Medical University of New York and Aswan University in Egypt called for tracking the history of the monkeypox virus in ancient Egyptian animal mummies.

In their correspondence, the researchers said, “Although the world has long been fascinated by human mummies, interest in animal mummies has only recently increased. Ancient Egyptian animal mummies are less well researched than human mummies, but once well studied, could open the door to understanding epidemic dynamics at the human-animal interface in ancient times and the subsequent impact on modern diseases.”

The researchers’ correspondence came in response to a study published in The Lancet Microbe in late August, which postulates the possible existence of monkeypox in ancient Egypt. They said, however, that some points mentioned in the study might be confusing.

Hani Aiash, assistant dean of Upstate Medical University of New York, professor of medicine and surgery and co-writer of the recent correspondence, told Al-Monitor, “Egyptian mummies — human or animal — constitute a very large world full of secrets, and researchers are working to unveil such secrets. However, focus in the past decades has been on studying human, not animal mummies. This is why scientific studies must be conducted on the mummified animals that Egypt has discovered over the past years.”

He stressed, “The human-animal relationship [in ancient Egypt] is yet to be examined, and if we are to intensify scientific studies on this relationship, we would be able to avoid many epidemics. Also, the secrets of animal mummies would, in turn, reveal secrets about the median host that transmits disease from animals to humans.”

AbdulRahman Ahmed Saeed, a veterinarian at the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and another co-writer of the correspondence, told Al-Monitor, “After discovering smallpox-like signs in the mummy of Ramses V, scientists assumed that [Ramses V possibly died] from the smallpox virus, although they were unable to get the DNA of the [smallpox] virus from the mummy.”

He said, “The study of ancient Egyptian mummified animals with the aim of tracking viruses in ancient times draws attention to a broader dimension of the history of common diseases like monkeypox with the help of modern techniques, such as the molecular clock or ancient DNA extraction.”

Saeed noted, “The most important thing that distinguishes the monkeypox virus from the smallpox virus is that animals are not infected with the smallpox virus.”

He added, “Pet animals in the Pharaonic era, such as gazelles, monkeys and dogs, were elaborately mummified.”

Hussein Abdel Basir, director of the Antiquities Museum of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, told Al-Monitor, “Animals in ancient Egypt were of great importance, and ancient Egyptians chose certain animals to symbolize holiness and honor. An example of this is that the ancient Egyptians saw tenderness and mercy in cows, so they considered cows, which they called Hathor, as a god of happiness and fertility. The same goes for falcons, which Egyptians deemed as the lord of the sky, so they named them Horus.”

He added, “Several discoveries of ancient animals were made. Cemeteries that included a large number of mummified animals were found in the past, such as in Saqqara [in late 2018], which indicate that ancient Egyptians mummified and took great care of animals.”

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