September 2014 – HEALTH – There is a real possibility that Ebola could mutate into a virus that is as spreadable as the flu, one of the nation’s top Ebola researchers tells Newsmax Health. “I don’t want to be an alarmist, but the possibility of Ebola becoming an airborne virus clearly has to be taken into account,” said David Sanders, associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University. “Ebola does share some of the characteristics of airborne viruses like influenza and we should not disregard the possibility of it evolving into something that could be transmitted in this way,” added Sanders, whose work on Ebola led to his participation in the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Biological Weapons Proliferation Prevention Program. U.S. health officials have largely dismissed Ebola as posing a major threat inside American borders. Testifying before a Congressional subcommittee this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top White House infectious disease advisor, said it was very unlikely Ebola would mutate in a way that would make it transmittable through the air like flu. That’s “not something I would put at the very top of the radar screen,” he said. But Sanders disagrees. “I want the facts to be clear. It’s important that we not get the idea that this can’t happen,” he said, adding, “When people say that it is impossible for this virus to mutate, this is simply not true.”
According to Sanders, a key factor in the successful mutation of a virus centers on how it enters and exits the body. Sanders led a research team that established the Zaire form of the Ebola virus, which is the one involved in the West Africa epidemic, could enter the mucus-lined cells that line the human airway in much the same way the flu virus does. He pointed to the flu as an example of how a virus can mutate so that it can infect different species and be transmitted in different ways. Originally, flu was a virus that lived in the gastrointestinal tract of aquatic birds, like ducks and geese. But it mutated into a disease that spread easily among humans, gaining entry to the human body through airways, which have a mucus lining that is similar to that in the gastrointestinal tract of birds. To pose a major threat in the U.S., the Ebola virus would have to mutate so that it could survive outside the body for a significant length of time like influenza can, Sanders said. “This is not how the Ebola virus is currently known to spread, but there is evidence that it has some of the necessary components for respiratory transmission,” he said.
The more the West Africa epidemic spreads, the more likely it is that the virus will mutate. This is why it is important the outbreak be contained now, even though it hasn’t yet reached American shores, he said. “When people have looked at the current outbreak, the virus really hasn’t changed much,” Sanders said. “However, this research was done when there were 1,500 cases and now it’s up to 4,000 and if it gets to be 100,000 cases, there is more and more of a chance for mutations to occur.” There is no way to forecast when or if Ebola will dangerously mutate, he said. “I can’t calculate you the probability of this happening. I can just tell you that from the way the virus enters the body, this is a possibility and that clearly has to be taken into account,” Sanders added. –Newsmax Health