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Could the Ebola Strain Ravaging Africa Mutate to Become More Deadly? Here’s What Experts Think

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Image source: Shutterstock

The possibility for the strain of Ebola virus to go airborne has been an undercurrent in the conversation about the historic outbreak in West Africa for months now, but experts are speaking out about some fearmongering that the virus will mutate and become more potent.

“I’ve been dismayed by some of the nonsense speculation out there,” Edward Holmes, a biologist at the University of Sydney, told the New York Times. “I understand why people get nervous about this, but as scientists we need to be very careful we don’t scaremonger.”

Liberian children read a leaflet with guidelines to protect the community from the Ebola virus, in Monrovia, Liberia. (AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)

Looking at this strain of the virus specifically, the Times reported Harvard University researchers, including geneticist Pardis Sabeti, believe the outbreak started with just one infection that likely occurred in December. The researchers believe that the virus has in fact undergone mutations during the several months of the exponentially growing outbreak. This though is something that is natural for a virus to do and mutations do not necessarily mean more problems for those infected.

“You’ve got a fairly standard Ebola virus,” Holmes told the newspaper. “It’s just in the worst possible place.”

If the virus were to mutate in a way that increases its viral potential, Holmes said it would likely need to be the result of several mutations, not just one. He added that the virus really doesn't have any reason to favor such a mutation at this time.

"The virus is doing pretty well right now,” Holmes told the Times. “So it would need to be beneficial for the virus to make this quite big jump.”

Liberian Red cross health workers carry body of an ebola victim who died over night due to Ebola virus in ELWA 3 Ebola treatment center in Paynesville outside Monrovia, Liberia. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) Liberian Red cross health workers carry body of an Ebola victim who died over night due to Ebola virus in ELWA 3 Ebola treatment center in Paynesville outside Monrovia, Liberia. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Sabeti added that for Ebola to mutate and change its method of infection, which is currently through direct contact with infected bodily fluids, is "biologically plausible, but very unlikely."

According to the World Health Organization, Ebola virus disease was first identified in two 1976 outbreaks that occurred in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is currently no vaccine to help prevent the virus, but health agencies have allowed the testing process to be expedited in light of the current outbreak.

More than 8,300 infections and more than 4,000 deaths have hit in West Africa since March, according to WHO's most recent estimate. On Tuesday, WHO assistant director-general Dr. Bruce Aylward said if the current outbreak isn't brought under control, there could be up to 10,000 new cases per week starting in December.

Front page image via Shutterstock.

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