Human monkeypox was first recognized outside Africa in 2003 during an outbreak in the USA that was traced to imported monkeypox virus (MPXV)-infected West African rodents. Unlike the smallpox-like disease described in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC; a Congo Basin country), disease in the USA appeared milder. Here, analyses compared clinical, laboratory and epidemiological features of confirmed human monkeypox case-patients, using data from outbreaks in the USA and the Congo Basin, and the results suggested that human disease pathogenicity was associated with the viral strain. Genomic sequencing of USA, Western and Central African MPXV isolates confirmed the existence of two MPXV clades. A comparison of open reading frames between MPXV clades permitted prediction of viral proteins that could cause the observed differences in human pathogenicity between these two clades. Understanding the molecular pathogenesis and clinical and epidemiological properties of MPXV can improve monkeypox prevention and control.