MOSCOW, September 19 (RIA Novosti), Ekaterina Blinova - The Ebola virus could mutate into an airborne form and spread quickly throughout the globe, say scientists, regarding the threat the deadly disease may pose to humankind in the nearest future.
"In 2012, a team of Canadian researchers proved that Ebola Zaire, the same virus that is causing the West Africa outbreak, could be transmitted by the respiratory route from pigs to monkeys, both of whose lungs are very similar to those of humans. We must consider that such transmissions could happen between humans, if the virus mutates," writes Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, in his Op-Ed "What We’re Afraid to Say About Ebola", published by the New York Times.
The scientist points out that the deadly virus is mutating constantly while being transmitted from one human to another. Since we are facing a “hyper-evolution" of the virus he sees as unprecedented, it has already obtained "trillions of throws of the genetic dice," Osterholm emphasizes.
The virus's "hyper-evolution" may result in a new airborne form of Ebola, which would swiftly spread across the globe. "Infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe, as the H1N1 influenza virus did in 2009, after its birth in Mexico," writes the scientist.
David Sanders, an associate professor at Purdue University whose work on the Ebola virus led to his participation in the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency's Biological Weapons Proliferation Prevention Program, confirms that since the virus could "enter human airway epithelial cells," the idea of Ebola turning airborne "is not far-fetched."
"It is not unprecedented for a virus to change its mode of transmission. 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," he noted, as cited by Laboratory Equipment Magazine.
The virus expert underscores that there are many factors that influence the ability of a virus to enter cells "that line the trachea and lungs."
"To be airborne it must be present on tiny droplets from a cough or sneeze and must be able to live outside of the body for a certain length of time. This is not how the virus is currently known to spread, but it is evidence that it has some of the necessary components for respiratory transmission," Sanders emphasizes.
However, some experts disagree that such a scenario is possible. "It's pretty unlikely" that Ebola could mutate into an airborne form, insists Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh, as quoted by Live Science.
"Airborne transmission may be what we fear the most, but evolutionarily speaking, it may not be the best path for the virus to take," he stresses. Although the virus mutates, this "does not necessarily mean" that it may become airborne, the physician says.
However, even in its current form, the Ebola virus poses a substantial threat to millions of people, experts warn. In his article "1.2 Million Deaths By Ebola Projected Within Six Months?" Michigan States University econometrics expert Francis Smart predicts that if nothing changes and the virus spreads at its current rates, "as many as 4.7 million people will have been infected and 1.2 million will have already died" in the next six to nine months.