Ebola and Bioterrorism


Recent accounts of Ebola in West Africa are terrify particularly since some cases have now spread to the US and other Western countries. At the end of the 3rd year university course in molecular virology I used to teach, the students were asked which viruses could be weaponised for bioterrorism. The usual three viruses that come up were influenza, small-pox and Ebola. All these viruses required a high degree of technological expertise and state-of-the-art laboratory containment facilities with personnel trained in molecular genetics and DNA technology. Influenza had the advantages of being an air-borne infection — the question was how easily could you reconstruct the Spanish flu of 1914 from published sequences of the virus into a current influenza virus. For small-pox, there are presumably deep freezers in the US and Russia that still have samples of the virus or one could use a close relative like camel-pox and reverse engineered it to contain the known published sequence of virulence genes of small-pox. Both of these viruses could be produced but were probably beyond the capability of your common variety terrorist.

Similarly Ebola would be difficult to produce in a laboratory due to its highly contagious nature. Ebola was initially thought to have a short incubation period of 2-3 days so the possibility of someone from a West African village boarding an airplane on an international flight seemed remote. With the incubation period now being as long as 21-days this changes everything. With the outbreak in West Africa the question of virus supply is no longer an issue — all you need is a bucket of vomit or vials of infected blood.  Also recent events have shown that a few cases of Ebola can be contained and quarantined but the health systems can not cope with hundreds or thousands of cases.

To put Ebola into perspective, it was thought to be a rarely occurring exotic virus disease in distant jungles in West Africa. Not something we in the West need concern ourselves with  — compare this to the response to SARS when it spread in Western countries. Now some 38 years later we are scrambling to understand more about Ebola. We live in a global world and need a massive global effort to get on top of this problem.

I don’t think anyone in my virology class was a potential jihadist terrorist but the world has just become more complicated.