The good news about the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa is that the massive efforts to bring it under control are working. There were only 33 new cases reported last week, which is much better than the roughly 1,000 per week back five months ago in November. The bad news is that the disease is still being spread by individuals who don’t realize they have the disease, and discovering all the people they came into contact with in the previous days is ultimately impossible. Fortunately, Ebola only spreads easily when the person is quite sick, so the transmission rate is low, but until every case is found and isolated a recurrence of the epidemic is possible. A year ago, on January 1st, only a single person, a two-year-old boy named Emile Ouamouno, had died in the West African outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), and today’s sad count is 10,808. An intense effort for a few more weeks may bring this scourge to an end.
Perhaps the best news was just reported in Nature-Letters, that one of the newly created drugs, named TKM-Ebola, has been very effective. Of six macaques infected with lethal doses of Ebola virus, the three given the drug after they were sick with Ebola survived, and the three not given the drug died. No doubt the drug will now be given to humans, and as there are so few people now contracting the disease all of the new victims may be given this new drug.
Perhaps even the very best news is that the researchers who developed this new drug knew exactly what they were trying to create, and knew exactly how to create it. I didn’t see the word CRISPR in the news report, but they did mention putting strings of DNA into exact places in the Ebola virus to disable it. That is terrifically wonderful news because it implies that the research community can now eliminate many diseases, and quickly too.
And now for the ugly, and it is truly ugly! There are people who have collected this virus and other ones throughout the world and are using these same advanced technologies to weaponize these diseases. I blogged about this problem five years ago relative to chemical weapons in a book review of State Secrets: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program by Vil S. Mirzayanov. This is readily available knowledge, and I do acknowledge that it is part of the natural order of things that people will wage war on other people by any means available, but collecting diseases with the intent of randomly creating epidemics is the ultimate evil. This ability to manipulate the disease and its methods of transmission can so easily go out of control and destroy many non-involved living things. To these research people I would say –
Remember that you too are part of humanity.