Ebola mutation 'presents nightmare scenario'

  • 12 September 2014
A public health worker in Liberia disinfects a courtyard as villagers watch. Image copyright Getty Images

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Virologists may not be publicly talking about the possibility that the Ebola virus could someday mutate into an airborne strain, writes Michael T Osterholm in the New York Times, but it's something they are "definitely considering in private".

The director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota says that the virus - which currently can only be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids - has proven to be "notoriously sloppy in replicating", which increases the chances that it could turn into something more contagious.

"Why are public officials afraid to discuss this?" he asks. "They 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 second disturbing scenario he envisions is if the Ebola virus is brought to a more densely populated area of the world, where it would be more difficult to contain.

According to the World Health Organisation, the virus has already infected almost 4,800 people and killed around 2,400. It is now predicting that more than 20,000 may contract the virus before the current outbreak is over.

"What happens when an infected person yet to become ill travels by plane to Lagos, Nairobi, Kinshasa or Mogadishu - or even Karachi, Jakarta, Mexico City or Dhaka?" he asks. The more people who get infected, he says, the greater the opportunities for mutation.

"The current Ebola virus' hyper-evolution is unprecedented; there has been more human-to-human transmission in the past four months than most likely occurred in the last 500 to 1,000 years," he writes.

To prevent this, Osterholm says, the United Nations should be put in charge of overseeing containment of the outbreak by managing air supply chains, providing hospital beds and training medical staff.

Waiting for a vaccine isn't a realistic solution, he concludes. By the time one is developed, the disease could be in "our own backyards".

Although Osterholm paints a dark picture - and it's not the first time he's taken to a major daily newspaper to do so - other public health professionals are unconvinced. Scott Gottlieb, former deputy director of the US Food and Drug Administration, writes in Forbes that it is very unlikely that the Ebola virus would ever mutate into an airborne version.

"It would be unusual for a virus to transform in a way that changes its mode of infection," he writes. "Of the 23 known viruses that cause serious disease in man, none are known to have mutated in ways that changed how they infect humans."

Tara C Smith, writing for ScienceBlogs, says that diseases similar to Ebola have already appeared in the US and have been easily controlled. She adds that she is much more concerned with "ordinary" viruses like influenza and measles.

"Ebola is exotic and its symptoms can be terrifying, but also much easier to contain by people who know their stuff," she concludes.

In 2005 Wendy Orent, writing in the New Republic, called Osterholm a "doomsayer" who has been on the "disease and terrorism circuit" for decades, warning of impending dangers like smallpox, mosquito-borne viruses and swine flu.

So is Osterholm's op-ed a "clarion call to action" or nothing but "fearmongering", as one molecular virologist called it on Twitter?

If it's the former, we've been warned. If it's the latter, then it's fearmongering on some prime real estate - the opinion pages of the New York Times.

Spain

Scottish secession a cause for concern - Catalonian separatists are watching the upcoming vote on Scottish secession from the UK very closely. Bloomberg View's Mark Gilbert says that the independence-minded Spanish region could be home to the next significant European separatist drive.

Gilbert says the recent nosedive in the Spanish and Catalonian bond prices are an indication that investors are taking seriously the recent demonstrations in Barcelona to force a vote on independence.

"The momentum in Scotland for freedom has taken both politicians and investors by surprise and, in Spain, the former would do well to heed the moves being made by the latter," Gilbert concludes.

Russia

Punishing sanctions threaten global stability - If Western nations go too far in trying to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine, writes Nobel prize-winning economist Robert J Shiller, it could push Europe and possibly the entire world into another recession.

Given that the global economy is just starting to emerge from the 2008 financial crisis, such a development would be extremely concerning, he writes for Project Syndicate.

He compares the current mood around the world to that of 1937, when people had been "disappointed for a long time" and had little hope for the future. It was this instability, he says, that led to World War Two.

"It would be highly desirable to come to an agreement to end the sanctions; to integrate Russia (and Ukraine) more fully into the world economy; and to couple these steps with expansionary economic policies," he concludes.

Saudi Arabia

IS is a monster made by the Arab world - Why aren't nations like Saudi Arabia doing more to stop the spread of the Islamic State (IS), asks Le Monde's Alain Frachon (translated by WorldCrunch). He says it's because all the Middle East players are more preoccupied with the Sunni-Shiite regional power struggle.

"In that fight, anything goes, including fomenting an extremist Sunni movement," he writes. "In their battle against the Shia, Islam's majorities have fueled Sunni extremism."

While Saudi Arabian leaders acknowledge that the rise of IS is a concern, they are also worried that a direct attack on the insurgents could anger their own people.

"The 'Arab streets' are receptive to the jihadists' message, a fatal attraction that the Arab regimes fight openly at their peril," he writes.

Palestinian Authority

Back to the UN - Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is once again pledging to ask the United Nations to recognise Palestinian statehood. But trying to do so now, cautions Rami G Khouri in Bloomberg View, will likely get him "laughed out of any room he entered".

The reality, Khouri writes, is that Mr Abbas needs to reach a resolution with Hamas leaders and unite the Palestinian people, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and around the world, before moving forward.

"This can only be achieved by reviving the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which represents Palestinians everywhere but has been moribund since the 1993 Oslo agreements created the Palestinian Authority," he contends.

BBC Monitoring's quotes of the day

Middle East commentators react to US President Barack Obama's newly announced strategy to combat the Islamic State (IS).

"Did the US and Europe become aware only now that terrorism will affect them directly, so they decided to form an international alliance against it? Or did the US moves come within the framework of its conspiracy to divide the Middle East?" - Jalal al-Sayyid in Egypt's al-Akhbar.

"The Islamic State is a Western creation that has been intricately designed to divide the Arab world." - Abdalah al-Awadi in the United Arab Emirates' al-Ittihad.

"Unless the social reasons that caused the strengthening of the IS in Iraq and Syria disappear, the IS will not vanish... Turkey understands this and does not want to be a tool in the game that has been formed in a very short time with sleight of hand." - Hilal Kaplan in Turkey's Yeni Safak. ‎

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