News headlines seem to feverishly spread as if they were a pandemic of the brain.
Ebola hemorrhagic fever has been the most talked about disease of the year, appearing in thousands of headlines across the world since May. Through the noise of misinformation and sensationalism, fundamental information about the pandemic becomes harder to distinguish.
In an interview with Decoding Science on Tuesday, Shan-Lu Liu, MD, PhD, a Bond Life Sciences Center investigator who studies Ebola, weighed in on the latest news.
Liu, also an associate professor in the MU School of Medicine’s Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, and his lab are particularly interested in the early behaviors of the virus in transmission and how it can navigate around the host immune response.
Q: Talk about the transmission. Ebola doesn’t spread through air, but how easily can it be transmitted through fluids?
A: It’s hard to say. It’s really not like: touch an infected person and you got it. I don’t see that could happen so easily. As an RNA virus, it’s not that stable outside of the body, unlike hepatitis B virus (HBV) where you need to boil the virus for 10 minutes and it becomes not infectious. Because Ebola is not that stable, that should not be the reason why it’s so efficient to transmit.
I think the transmission is one of the biggest things it’s, you know, I don’t think we have a complete understanding. We do know that it spreads by contact through body fluids and many people don’t realize that the handling of the deceased — that’s very dangerous. Touching broken skin or mucous membranes like the nose and mouth is dangerous.
Q: Talk about the incubation period and how that relates to symptoms and spreading of the virus.
A: The incubation time is 2-21 days. At first, the person will have flu-like symptoms, so you know, that’s why it’s hard to notice in the early stages. Some doctors or nurses say ‘just give him antibiotics send him home.’ But in stage two, you get the hemorrhage and it gets serious. The mortality rate is high, from 50 to 90 percent.
I think the fatality is definitely related to the late stages of the disease, especially with the hemorrhaging fever. The early stages are almost unnoticeable but that’s the time transmission might spread easier through contact with an infected person’s fluid. Before symptoms, the virus doesn’t spread.
Q: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus could infect 1.4 million people in West Africa. Is this a realistic expectation?
A: You know, it could happen. It’s a prediction again, right? But I think the agency and the scientific community need to look at this prediction very carefully. What could be done in terms to prevent this from happening? It’s alarming.
Q: Last week, an article seemed to contradict with the CDC estimate. The headline: “Some good news about Ebola: It won’t spread nearly as fast as other epidemics.“ What do you make of that?
I don’t know, it’s hard for me to make a comment. Nobody knows. Things can always change. We didn’t expect to see a diagnosis in the United States — like this you know, this patient from Liberia was able to travel on a plane from virus country. Who can expect that? Anything can happen. There seem to have been some mishaps because he came from that area, right? Communication is more important now but it’s hard to predict because anything could happen.
Q: How has the Ebola virus behaved in previous outbreaks?
A: The first outbreak was in 1976 in Sudan and Congo — (Democratic Republic of Congo, known as Zaire at the time). It was from contaminated needles in a hospital and originally came from fruit bats — they are one of those animals that could transmit Ebola from animals to humans. The fruit bats transmitted the virus to primates, primates transmit to humans. It’s hard to notice in the early stages.
Editor’s note: The 1976 outbreak was the first occurrence of Ebola in humans. The outbreak affected one village, infecting 318 people that resulted in 280 deaths.
Q: Much of the media has reported a vaccine for ebola was delayed. How could this happen?
A: Drugs and vaccines are a little different. The Ebola vaccine was delayed, that’s for sure. That’s because, the vaccine on trial has to go through tedious steps to get approval and so thats why when this outbreak occurs the NIH (National Institutes of Health) decides to go ahead quickly. One of the things for ebola vaccine is um, the pharmaceutical companies and the industries are not interested in developing vaccines. Do you know why? It is not a big market. Only a hundred — or a thousand or more — people will be infected by ebola, unlike other vaccines like the HPV vaccination where 200 million people need it. The companies are not interested in developing it, because there’s no money in it.
A company needs to spend a lot of money to develop a vaccine, but they don’t see the market — the market can’t do it. But somebody needs to do it. Imagine if, if the virus spread like this, you know, unpredictable, it could be worse. In terms of therapy, the drugs and antibodies, we know they are really effective. And they are specific, so they can reach the market effectively.
Q: Will a drug be enough to prevent wide spreading of Ebola?
I think the companies and governments are speeding up to make those available. To see this prediction (the CDC 1.4 million estimate), they have to be prepared. People have put increasing attention on antibodies because a vaccine is not in the near future. So what’s the approach? A “therapeutic vaccine.” The so-called therapeutic vaccine is an antibody so you engineer, you use you know, molecular engineering technique to generate those antibodies and they can neutralize and block viral infection. It’s more realistic for Ebola and even for HIV. The HIV vaccine has failed so many times. So that’s why I think one of the new approaches is to use a new broad neutralizing antibody.
Q: Does Ebola stay in the body, like chicken pox?
A: Ebola do not cause latent infection. HIV can become latent and become chronic. So influenza virus, ebola viral infection and others normally do not lead to latency. I think for Ebola — for this type of infection — once you block the patient and clear the virus it should be good.
Q: Has the media done a good job in educating the public?
I think in terms of news coverage they are pretty careful. I looked at the news conference by the CDC director and by those doctors in Dallas, and when they make statements they are careful not to exaggerate and also give very cautious measurements. The news media need to be aware of the danger of the virus. In the meantime, you have to be aware of the possibility of being affected.
Again, I think it is a very important problem. It’s important to let the public know the situation. If you see people who have recently traveled from those West African countries, you have to be cautious — air travel is so common. But I think the media have generally done a good job.
Q: Has the government done a good job keeping the pandemic under control?
I don’t know what they do. The air travel is a problem. Intensified screening process, that should definitely be done. It’s very bad for people from the outbreak area, and I just hope that this community won’t be affected.
To control, they should be careful. A person with any sign of the disease — they need to be quickly monitored and treated.
Q: What’s the most important take-away message for the public?
A: I think it’s an important problem and we need to solve it urgently. I hope this outbreak will teach us a lesson in terms of how important emerging infectious viruses are as it comes and goes is to public health. Based on literature and reports, if people do not have obvious symptoms, they do not produce an infectious virus. The incubation time has a big range but again, we are still trying to understand the process better. Infection is a complex process. We need to better understand the viral transmission so I think for now, we need to be very cautious.
Liu and his lab do not work with the contagious Ebola virus on University of Missouri campus. All of the studies involve use of a recombinant or pseudotyped Ebola virus which is not infectious.