The World Health Organization has issued a situation assessment entitled ‘What we know about transmission of the Ebola virus among humans‘. WHO is rather late entering the transmission discussion which began on 12 September 2014 with the suggestion that Ebola virus transmission could go airborne. WHO is a big organization and moves slowly; nevertheless their voice may reassure those who are not convinced by what virologists have to say. Here are the salient points (voiced here and by many others in the past few weeks).

The Ebola virus is transmitted among humans through close and direct physical contact with infected bodily fluids, the most infectious being blood, faeces and vomit.

Ebola virus disease is not an airborne infection. Airborne spread among humans implies inhalation of an infectious dose of virus from a suspended cloud of small dried droplets.

This mode of transmission has not been observed during extensive studies of the Ebola virus over several decades.

Moreover, scientists are unaware of any virus that has dramatically changed its mode of transmission*. For example, the H5N1 avian influenza virus, which has caused sporadic human cases since 1997, is now endemic in chickens and ducks in large parts of Asia.

That virus has probably circulated through many billions of birds for at least two decades. Its mode of transmission remains basically unchanged.

Speculation that Ebola virus disease might mutate into a form that could easily spread among humans through the air is just that: speculation, unsubstantiated by any evidence.

The last sentence is the key point:

To stop this outbreak, more needs to be done to implement – on a much larger scale – well-known protective and preventive measures. Abundant evidence has documented their effectiveness

*Sounds familiar?


On episode #305 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, and Kathy continue their coverage of the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, with a discussion of case fatality ratio, reproductive index, a conspiracy theory, and spread of the virus to the United States.

You can find TWiV #305 at

Filovirus virion

Image credit: ViralZone

Given the extent of the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, transport of an infected individual to the US was bound to happen. The case is an adult who had contact with an Ebola virus-infected woman in Liberia, then traveled to Dallas. He had no symptoms before arriving in the US and therefore did not likely transmit the infection to airplane passengers. He sought medical care on 26 Sep 2014 and was admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital 28 Sep 2014 where he is currently under isolation. Samples sent to the CDC tested positive for Ebola virus. There are excellent summaries of the events at ProMedMail and the CDC website.

Apparently the Dallas patient told a healthcare worker during his first hospital visit that he had been in Liberia. This information was not transmitted to his physician. The word ‘Liberia’ should have set off alarm bells. Furthermore, if the physician did not receive the patient’s recent travel history, he/she should have requested it. There is no room for error when dealing with Ebola virus infection.

It is puzzling that travel (excluding healthcare workers) out of the affected West African countries is still permitted. As moderator JW notes on ProMedMail: “This chain of events illustrates the danger that anybody arriving from Liberia, even without symptoms on departure from there or on arrival in the USA (or anywhere else in Africa or overseas) may be incubating Ebola — but not international volunteers who have only been in contact with Liberians while wearing adequate PPE (personal protection equipment).”

Why is it important to stop travel out of the affected countries? While I’m confident that the US can detect and properly contain imported Ebola virus infections, not all countries will be able to do so. There are dozens of other countries that are unprepared to deal with an infected case, from diagnosis to isolation to treatment. I can easily imagine infection quickly getting out of control in such countries: millions are at risk. While the economics of stopping air travel out of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea will be severe, they cannot approach the devastation of having outbreaks burning simultaneously in multiple countries.

Update: NPR has a good explanation of the reproductive index, or the number of persons who can be infected by another infected person during an outbreak. For Ebola virus, this number is 1-2. This low number is why quarantine can be effective.


Ebola is comingThe cover of this week’s issue of Businessweek declares that ‘Ebola is coming’ in letters colored like blood, with the subtitle ‘The US had a chance to stop the virus in its tracks. It missed’. Although the article presents a good analysis of the hurdles in developing antibody therapy for Ebola virus infection, the cover is overstated. Why does Businessweek think that Ebola virus is coming to the US? (there is no mention of this topic in the article). Are we sure that antibody therapy would have stopped the outbreak? (no, as stated in the article).

How the U.S. Screwed Up in the Fight Against Ebola is an analysis of why ZMapp, the cocktail of monoclonal antibodies that block infection with Ebola virus, has not yet been approved for use in humans. ZMapp was given to two American workers who had become infected with the virus while working in Africa. The two workers recovered, but the role of ZMapp in their recovery is unknown – as the authors of the article note. Although ZMapp can prevent lethal infection of nonhuman primates with Ebola virus, it is not known if it would work in humans. Answering that question requires a clinical trial, and the article explores why this phase was not done years ago. Only after the large Ebola virus outbreak in west Africa did the US provide funds to conduct a phase I trial of the drug.

The article discusses how development of ZMapp languished for years, because the US government did not consider the Ebolaviruses to be a pressing problem. In hindsight they were wrong, and now anyone can seem smart by saying we should have pushed development of Ebola virus vaccines and therapeutics.

The real question is whether we will learn from this experience, and be better prepared for the next viral outbreak. Just because infections are rare or geographically localized should not lessen their importance, as these features can change. Knowing the animal source of a viral infection may also lead to developing ways to prevent infections. For example, because people acquire Hendra virus from horses, immunization of these animals should prevent human infections.

What other antiviral vaccines and drugs should we be developing? This question is difficult to answer because we discover new viruses regularly and making therapeutics for all of them is not possible. Testing an antiviral drug or vaccine against rare viruses is difficult because identifying populations that are at risk for infection may be a hit or miss proposition.

Influenza viruses are at the top of the list for vaccine and drug development, because nearly everyone gets infected. Other viruses we should be ready for include SARS and MERS coronaviruses, dengue virus, chikungunya virus, Lassa virus, Nipah and Hendra viruses. I’m sure you can think of other viruses that belong on this list.

Developing antiviral vaccines and drugs is expensive. For some of the viruses on my list (dengue, chikungunya) there are currently large enough markets that permit involvement of for-profit pharmaceutical companies. Development of therapeutics against viruses that cause rare infections must be supported largely by governments.

The US does not spend enough money on basic life sciences research. We do spend a great deal of money on the military. President Obama recently declared Ebola virus to be a top national security priority. Why not view all infectious diseases in this way, to ensure that they receive the funding for research that they deserve?

While the Businessweek cover is misleading, intended to stimulate sales, the article does make us think about the problems we confront when dealing with rare but lethal diseases. No one should conclude that Ebola virus outbreak in Africa could have been prevented, because antiviral therapies have not yet been tested in humans. But we won’t know if we never do the research.


On episode #304 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiV team consults an epidemiologist to forecast the future scope of the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa.

You can find TWiV #304 at

Transmission of Ebola virus

27 September 2014

jet nebulizerAs the West African epidemic of Ebola virus grows, so does misinformation about the virus, particularly how it is transmitted from person to person. Ebola virus is transmitted from human to human by close contact with infected patients and virus-containing body fluids. It does not spread among humans by respiratory aerosols, the route of transmission  of many other human viruses such as influenza virus, measles virus, or rhinovirus. Furthermore, the mode of human to human transmission of Ebola virus is not likely to change.

What is aerosol transmission? Here is a definition from Medscape:

Aerosol transmission has been defined as person-to-person transmission of pathogens through the air by means of inhalation of infectious particles. Particles up to 100 μm in size are considered inhalable (inspirable). These aerosolized particles are small enough to be inhaled into the oronasopharynx, with the smaller, respirable size ranges (eg, < 10 μm) penetrating deeper into the trachea and lung.

All of us emit aerosols when we speak, breathe, sneeze, or cough. If we are infected with a respiratory virus such as influenza virus, the aerosols contain virus particles. Depending on their size, aerosols may travel long distances, and when inhaled they lodge on mucosal surfaces of the respiratory tract, initiating an infection.

Viral transmission can also occur when virus-containing respiratory droplets travel from the respiratory tract of an infected person to mucosal surfaces of another person. Because these droplets are larger, they cannot travel long distances as do aerosols, and are considered a form of contact transmission. Ebola virus can certainly be transmitted from person to person by droplets.

Medical procedures, like intubation, can also generate aerosols. It is possible that a health care worker could be infected by performing these procedures on a patient with Ebola virus disease. But the health care worker will not transmit the virus by aerosol to another person. In other words, there is no chain of respiratory aerosol transmission among infected people, as there is with influenza virus.

In the laboratory, machines called nebulizers (which are used to administer medications to humans by inhalation) can be used to produce virus-containing aerosols for studies in animals. A human would likely be infected with an Ebola virus-containing aerosol generated by a nebulizer (theoretically; such an experiment would be unethical).

A variety of laboratory animals have been infected with Ebola virus (Zaire ebolavirus) using aerosols. In one study rhesus macaques were infected with aerosolized Ebola virus using a chamber placed over the animals’ heads. This procedure resulted in replication of the virus in the respiratory tract followed by death. Virus particles were detected in the respiratory tract, but no attempts were made to transmit infection from one animal to another by aerosol. In another study, cynomolgous macaques, rhesus macaques, and African Green monkeys could be infected with Ebola virus aerosols using a head-only chamber. Virus replicated in the respiratory tract, and moved from regional lymph nodes to the blood and then to other organs. Virus titers in the respiratory tract appeared to be lower than in the previous study. No animal to animal transmission experiments were done.

When rhesus macaques were inoculated intramuscularly with Ebola virus,  virus could be detected in oral and nasal swabs; however infection was not transmitted to animals housed in separate cages. The authors conclude that ‘Airborne transmission of EBOV between non-human primates does not occur readily’.

Pigs can also be infected with Ebola virus. In one study, after dripping virus into the nose, eyes, and mouth, replication to high titers was detected in the respiratory tract, accompanied by severe lung pathology. The infected pigs can transmit infection to uninfected pigs in the same cage, but this experimental setup does not allow distinguishing between aerosol, droplet, or contact spread.

In another porcine transmission experiment, animals were infected oronasally as above, and placed in a room with cynomolgous macaques. The pigs were allowed to roam the floor, while the macaques were housed in cages. All of the macaques became infected, but their lungs had minimal damage. However it is not known how the virus was transmitted from pigs to macaques. The authors write: ‘The design and size of the animal cubicle did not allow to distinguish whether the transmission was by aerosol, small or large droplets in the air, or droplets created during floor cleaning which landed inside the NHP cages’. The authors also indicate that transmission between macaques in similar housing conditions was never observed.

While these experimental findings show that animals can be infected with Ebola virus by aerosol, they do not provide definitive evidence for animal to animal transmission via this route. It is clear is that the virus does not transmit via respiratory aerosols among nonhuman primates.

We do not know why, in humans or non-human primates, Ebola virus does not transmit by respiratory aerosols. The virus might not reach sufficiently high titers in the respiratory tract, or be stable in respiratory secretions, to be efficiently transmitted by this route. There are many other possibilities. A careful study of Ebola virus titers in the human respiratory tract, and in respiratory secretions, would be valuable. However during Ebola virus outbreaks the main concern is to save people, not conduct experiments.

These experiments reveal the large gaps in our understanding about virus transmission in general, and specifically why Ebola virus is not transmitted among primates by respiratory aerosols.


TWiV 303: Borna this way

21 September 2014

On episode #303 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiV team discusses transmission of Ebola virus, and inhibition of Borna disease virus replication by viral DNA in the ground squirrel genome.

You can find TWiV #303 at

sneezeIn a recent New York Times OpEd entitled What We’re Afraid to Say About Ebola, Michael Osterholm wonders whether Ebola virus could go airborne:

You can now get Ebola only through direct contact with bodily fluids. If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola. Infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe, as the H1N1 influenza virus did in 2009, after its birth in Mexico.

Is there any truth to what Osterholm is saying?

Let’s start with his discussion of Ebola virus mutation:

But viruses like Ebola are notoriously sloppy in replicating, meaning the virus entering one person may be genetically different from the virus entering the next. The current Ebola virus’s 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.

When viruses enter a cell, they make copies of their genetic information to assemble new virus particles. Viruses such as Ebola virus, which have genetic information in the form of RNA (not DNA as in other organisms), are notoriously bad at copying their genome. The viral enzyme that copies the RNA makes many errors, perhaps as many as one or two each time the viral genome is reproduced. There is no question that RNA viruses are the masters of mutation. This fact is in part why we need a new influenza virus vaccine every few years.

The more hosts infected by a virus, the more mutations will arise. Not all of these mutations will find their way into infectious virus particles because they cause lethal defects. But Osterholm’s statement that the evolution of Ebola virus is ‘unprecedented’ is simply not correct. It is only what we know. The virus was only discovered to infect humans in 1976, but it surely infected humans long before that. Furthermore, the virus has been replicating, probably for millions of years, in an animal reservoir, possibly bats. There has been ample opportunity for the virus to undergo mutation.

More problematic is Osterholm’s assumption that mutation of Ebola virus will give rise to viruses that can transmit via the airborne route:

If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola. Infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe, as the H1N1 influenza virus did in 2009, after its birth in Mexico.

The key phrase here is ‘certain mutations’. We simply don’t know how many mutations, in which viral genes, would be necessary to enable airborne transmission of Ebola virus, or if such mutations would even be compatible with the ability of the virus to propagate. What allows a virus to be transmitted through the air has until recently been unknown. We can’t simply compare viruses that do transmit via aerosols (e.g. influenza virus) with viruses that do not (e.g. HIV-1) because they are too different to allow meaningful conclusions.

One approach to this conundrum would be to take a virus that does not transmit among mammals by aerosols – such as avian influenza H5N1 virus – and endow it with that property. This experiment was done by Fouchier and Kawaoka several years ago, and revealed that multiple amino acid changes are required to allow airborne transmission of H5N1 virus among ferrets. These experiments were met with a storm of protest from individuals – among them Michael Osterholm – who thought they were too dangerous. Do you want us to think about airborne transmission, and do experiments to understand it – or not?

The other important message from the Fouchier-Kawaoka ferret experiments is that the H5N1 virus that could transmit through the air had lost its ability to kill. The message is clear: gain of function (airborne transmission) is accompanied by loss of function (virulence).

When it comes to viruses, it is always difficult to predict what they can or cannot do. It is instructive, however, to see what viruses have done in the past, and use that information to guide our thinking. Therefore we can ask: has any human virus ever changed its mode of transmission?

The answer is no. We have been studying viruses for over 100 years, and we’ve never seen a human virus change the way it is transmitted.

HIV-1 has infected millions of humans since the early 1900s. It is still transmitted among humans by introduction of the virus into the body by sex, contaminated needles, or during childbirth.

Hepatitis C virus has infected millions of humans since its discovery in the 1980s. It is still transmitted among humans by introduction of the virus into the body by contaminated needles, blood, and during birth.

There is no reason to believe that Ebola virus is any different from any of the viruses that infect humans and have not changed the way that they are spread.

I am fully aware that we can never rule out what a virus might or might not do. But the likelihood that Ebola virus will go airborne is so remote that we should not use it to frighten people. We need to focus on stopping the epidemic, which in itself is a huge job.


TWiV 302: The sky is falling

14 September 2014

On episode #302 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiVers discuss the growing Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, and an epidemic of respiratory disease in the US caused by enterovirus D68.

You can find TWiV #302 at


EV-A71 by Jason Roberts

During the winter of 1962 in California, a new virus was isolated from the oropharynx of 4 children who had been hospitalized with respiratory disease that included pneumonia and bronchiolitis. On the basis of its physical, chemical, and biological properties, the virus was classified as an enterovirus in the picornavirus family. Subsequently named enterovirus D68, it has been rarely reported in the United States (there were 79 isolations from 2009-2013). Towards the end of August 2014, an outbreak of severe respiratory disease associated with EV-D68 emerged in Kansas and Illinois.

Hospitals in Kansas City, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois reported to the CDC an increase in the number of patients hospitalized with severe respiratory illness. EV-D68 was subsequently identified by polymerase chain reaction and nucleotide sequencing in 19/22 and 11/14 nasopharyngeal specimens from Kansas City and Chicago, respectively. Median ages of the patients were 4 and 5 years in the two cities, and most were admitted to the pediatric intensive care units due to respiratory distress. Other states have reported increases in cases of severe respiratory illness, and these are being investigated at CDC to determine if they are also associated with EV-D68.

There is no vaccine to prevent EV-D68 infection, nor is antiviral therapy available to treat infected patients. Current treatment is supportive to assist breathing; in a healthy individual the infection will resolve within a week. In the current outbreak no fatalities have been reported.

EV-D68 has been previously associated with mild to severe respiratory illness and is known to cause clusters of infections. It is not clear why there has been a sudden increase in the number of cases in the US. According to Mark Pallansch, Director of the Division of Viral Diseases at CDC, “our ability to find and detect the virus has improved to the point where we may now be recognizing more frequently what has always occurred in the past. So a lot of these techniques are now being applied more routinely both at the CDC but also at state health departments.” (Source: NPR).

I am sure that the nucleotide sequence of the EV-D68 virus isolated from these patients will reveal differences with previous strains. However whether or not those changes have anything to do with the increased number of isolations in the US will be very difficult to determine, especially as there is no animal model for EV-D68 respiratory disease.

Although how EV-D68 is transmitted has not been well studied, the virus can be detected in respiratory secretions (saliva, nasal mucus, sputum) and is therefore likely to spread from person to person by coughing, sneezing, or touching contaminated surfaces. The virus has been isolated from some of the children in California with acute flaccid paralysis, and there is at least one report of its association with central nervous system disease. In this case viral nucleic acids were detected in the cerebrospinal fluid. EV-D68 probably does not replicate in the human intestinal tract because the virus is inactivated by low pH.

Readers might wonder why a virus that causes respiratory illness is called an enterovirus. This nomenclature is largely historical: poliovirus, which replicates in the enteric tract, was the prototype member of this genus. Other viruses, including Coxsackieviruses and echoviruses, were added to the genus based on their physical and chemical properties. However soon it became apparent that many of these viruses could also replicate in the respiratory tract. Years later the rhinoviruses, which do not replicate in the enteric tract, were added to the enterovirus genus based on nucleotide sequence comparisons. While it was decided to keep the name ‘enterovirus’ for this group of viruses, it is certainly confusing and I would argue that it should be replaced by a more descriptive name.