As the Ebola outbreak continues to spiral out of control, with the number of cases rising faster than the ability to contain them, some scientists are concerned that the virus could mutate to become an airborne disease, greatly increasing its potential for contagion.
More than 2,500 people in West Africa have died from the virus in recent months, with over 5,000 cases recorded, making the current outbreak the worst since the disease was discovered in 1976, with more cases than all previous outbreaks combined.
World Health Organization (WHO) officials say the number of people affected is likely to be much greater than current estimates suggest, moreover, and have forecast as many as 20, 000 cases and hinted at the possibility of even more.
Just when we thought the outlook couldn’t get much bleaker, a leading American scientist has revealed that some virologists fear that what we have seen so far may be just the beginning of a far greater threat.
Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, disclosed that those experts are reluctant to discuss their concerns publicly for fear of creating panic.
Writing for the New York Times, Osterholm said: “The second possibility is one that virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely considering in private: that an Ebola virus could mutate to become transmissible through the air.”
Since its discovery almost 40 years ago, the virus has only been transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, including sweat, of an infected person, dead or alive. But viruses similar to Ebola are notorious for replicating and reinventing themselves, Dr Osterholm cautioned.
In this way, the virus that emerged in Guinea earlier this year could be different to the one that has now spread to six countries.
Using the example of the H1N1 influenza virus that saw bird flu sweep the globe in 2009, Osterholm said: “If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola.”
Two years ago, Canadian researchers found that the same virus as that now sweeping West Africa could be passed via the respiratory system between pigs and monkeys, both of which have similar lungs to humans.
According to Dr Osterholm, public health officials, while concerned about the possibility, “don’t want to be accused of screaming ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre – as I’m sure some will accuse me of doing.
“But the risk is real, and until we consider it, the world will not be prepared to do what is necessary to end the epidemic.”
The United States, Britain, China and Cuba are among those countries who have already committed medical and support teams to battle the deadly disease, while the United Nations is calling for one billion dollars to end the outbreak.