When the news broke that the two Americans who had contracted Ebola virus disease (EVD) were going to be transported from Liberia to Atlanta, misguided fear spread like wildfire that the US would get swept up by the epidemic just as West Africa had. However, a new study supports what epidemiologists have long suspected: Ebola is not an airborne virus and is transmitted via contact with bodily fluids. The research was led by Gary Kobinger of the University of Manitoba and the results were published in Scientific Reports.
Most of the confusion regarding this manner is due to a paper Kobinger published in 2012 about the transition of Ebolavirus from pigs to macaques. The swine and primates were kept near one another, but not in direct contact. The pigs were infected with a strain of Ebola that has never been documented to cause disease in humans, but can be fatal to monkeys. (There are five species in the Ebolavirus genus, and three of them cause EVD. The strain causing the current epidemic is the most fatal, but there is no evidence that swine in West Africa are infected with that strain.) After being in proximity to the infected pigs, all of the macaques contracted the virus. As the two species would not have been able to touch one another, it was suggested that the virus could actually be transmitted through air due to the aerosol generated by the pigs.
Kobinger’s current research demonstrated that infected macaques were unable to transmit the virus to uninfected macaques without direct contact. The study used the species responsible for the current epidemic of 1,700+ human infections. The two groups of primates were near enough where aerosols could have spread the virus through the air, but they were not able to touch. While the infected macaques died in under a week, the other two never contracted the virus.
So does this mean that only certain strains of Ebolavirus can be transmitted through the air? Or is it perhaps that pigs have a specialized ability to make Ebola airborne? Was the virus transmitted via an unknown source of cross-contamination? Those questions could very well be settled with further research, but until then, one thing is for certain: There is absolutely no evidence that primates can transmit Ebola to one another through the air. The only evidence of primate-to-primate transmission is from direct bodily contact.
The reason EVD has spread throughout West Africa is due to a lack of healthcare infrastructure. Additionally, many are distrusting of medical practices and favor their traditional techniques, which often include contact with the patient without any protective barriers. Those offering care in Atlanta understand the precautions needed in this matter and there is no sane or logical reason to believe it will spread throughout developed countries.
For more information about Ebola, check out “Ten Things You Really Should Know About Ebola”
[Tip o’ the hat: Science News]