More than 3300 people have died of an Ebola outbreak in Africa, and now, the virus has made the jump to United States: In Dallas, Texas, 100 people who came in contact with a Liberian national who has the disease have been quarantined. Here are some things you might not have known about the haemorrhagic fever.
1. It’s not even alive.
The criteria to be considered a living organism includes being able to eat and to reproduce on your own. Ebola can reproduce aggressively inside an infected host, but it needs to insert itself into the host cells to do it—no host cell, no more new viruses. (Just don’t call it a prion: bits of protein that influence other proteins to adopt their misshapen forms, causing diseases. Ebola has genetic material held inside a protective protein coat, while prions don’t.) Ebola doesn’t metabolize anything on its own, either, making it not dead but not really alive. Ebola is something like a zombie—a bundle of genetic programming with replication skills and bad intentions.
2. This is not the first U.S. outbreak.
There’s a whole family tree of Ebola. There are 5 species that have been identified, each named after the place they sprung up: Zaire, Bundibugyo, Sudan, Reston and Taï Forest. The current outbreak is the Zaire strain—which is creepy because the crisis is not in Zaire. The Reston subtype is named after a town in Virginia, where an outbreak occurred in 1989, followed by incidents in Texas and Pennsylvania. These all had one thing in common: infected monkeys exported by a single facility in the Philippines. These outbreaks are different than the current patient in Dallas for one big reason: No humans suffered illness in any of the previous cases.
3. It has a military mindset for invasion.
Researchers are finding out just how clever Ebola is as they reveal some of the virus' murderous Modus Operandi. One key to its lethal success is the stealth way it shuts down immune system defenses, the same way an air force will disable air defenses before sending in the bombers. Ebola obstructs parts of an immune system that are activated by molecules called interferons. These interferons have a vital role in fighting Ebola, usually with scorched earth tactics. “It makes a variety of responses to viral infection possible, including the self-destruction of infected cells,” says Christopher Basler, professor of microbiology at Mount Sinai and co-author of recent studies done by a consortium of Ebola researchers. That group also said, in a paper published in the August 13 edition of the journal Cell Host & Microbe, that they figured out exactly how Ebola craftily disables signals the cells use to defend against attack: An Ebola protein called VP24 binds to a specific protein that takes signaling molecules in and out a cell’s nucleus. Without communication, the cell can’t call for help or kill itself. The virus then hijacks the cell, uses it to make more viruses, and spreads them to more cells. Next thing you know, the infected victim is bleeding from every orifice.
4. No one knows how it came to infect people.
There is a lot we think we know about Ebola’s origins. For starters, human beings are not its natural host, what epidemiologists charmingly call a “reservoir.” Scientists believe that Ebola’s reservoirs are fruit bats. Infected bats can pass the virus to a bunch of other mammals, like rats, primates, and other bats. No one is sure how people became exposed to Ebola, but the best guess is that the monkeys were the conduit. Local hunters in Africa likely became infected while butchering the animals. Anyone who became sick likely infected their family and, if hospitalized in an unsanitary facility, other patients.
5. Gumshoe detective work is the only way to stop an outbreak.
For all the biotech and medical savvy, it takes the investigative skill of a homicide detective to stop an outbreak. Professionals call it “contact tracing,” but it’s really man hunting. Here’s how it works: Ebola victim A is isolated and interviewed. Anyone who had close contact with A is put into isolation for 21 days. (In Texas, there are emergency medical technicians in this quarantine limbo right now.) If they exhibit no symptoms, they’re free to go. If they come down with Ebola, they become victim B, and another contact trace begins. If the investigators miss anyone, the outbreak will continue. The CDC even put out a cool poster of the process.
6. You can order it from a catalog.
The home page of BEI Resources has an interesting tab that reads “Ebola reagents available.” With a couple of clicks of the mouse, you reach a catalog of infectious disease materials available for order. Just what is going on here?
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has set up BEI to make sure research facilities have access to microbiological materials that can help them develop diagnostics and vaccines for emerging diseases. Scientists must be registered with BEI to request materials. The real key here is the word “reagent,” which means the virus is not an active threat. For example, they have Gamma-irradiated Sudan Ebola virus that has been spun in a centrifuge to separate out cell fragments. Reagents won't spread, but they can serve as stand-ins during the development of tests. (On the Biosafety Level, or BSL, scale—which ranks the severity of infectious disease and sets baselines of which safety protocols need to be enforced to work with them in a lab—reagents are treated at Biosafety level 1; Ebola is a BSL-4, the top of the scale for risky bugs.) The best part of the catalogue is the disclaimer: “BEI Resources products are intended for laboratory research purposes only. They are not intended for use in humans.”