Africa scientists are privately concerned the virus could mutate to become airborne, one expert has warned. So far 2,300 people have lost their lives to the disease with more than 4,300 cases recorded in West Africa in the last six months – the worst outbreak since the disease was discovered in 1976. The World Health Organisation has warned there may be thousands of new cases each week in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria by early October. Fifteen countries could be hit by the outbreak – putting the lives of 22 million people at risk, a new study has revealed.
But behind closed doors, virologists fear what we have seen so far may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy a the University of Minnesota, said those experts are loathed to discuss their concerns in public, for fear of whipping up hysteria.
Discussing the possible future course of the current outbreak, he 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.’
But the chair of the UK’s Health Protection Agency, Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene of Tropical Medicine, said it is impossible to predict how any virus will mutate.
He said scientists across the world do not know enough about genetics to be able to say how the ebola virus will change over time.
The virus can currently only be transmitted through close contact with bodily fluids, including blood, of an infected patient.
But Dr Osterholm warns viruses similar to Ebola are notorious for replicating and reinventing themselves.
It means the virus that first broke out in Guinea in February may be very different to the one now invading Nigeria, Congo and Cameroon.