Thursday, December 25, 2014

Ebola, Emerging Pandemics and Synthetic Viruses

Ebola: photo NIAID

“Viruses like Ebola are notoriously sloppy in replicating, meaning the virus entering one person may be genetically different from the virus entering the next. The current Ebola virus’s hyper-evolution is unprecedented; there has been more human-to-human transmission in the past four months than most likely occurred in the last 500 to 1,000 years.”[1]

A National Geographic article entitled, “Tracking a Serial Killer: Could Ebola Mutate to Become More Deadly?” David Quammen notes that “Ebola virus is a zoonosis, meaning an animal infection transmissible to humans. The animal in which a zoonosis lives its customary existence, discreetly, over the long term, and without causing symptoms, is called a reservoir host."2. "The reservoir host of Ebola virus is still unknown—even after 38 years of efforts to identify it, since the original 1976 outbreak—although one or more kinds of fruit bat, including the hammer-headed bat, are suspects. There are hammer-headed bats in southeastern Guinea In. It's possible that somebody killed one for food and brought it to Meliandou, where the child became infected either by direct contact with the bat or by virus passed on the hands of an adult.”3

Quammen continues to question why such facts and suppositions are significant. He reminds us that Ebola virus abides endemically in the forests of equatorial Africa. “It will never be eradicated as long as those forests exist, unless the reservoir host itself is eradicated (not recommended) or cured of the viral infection (not likely possible). The virus may retire into its hiding place for years at a time, but eventually it will return, as a result of some disruptive contact by humans with the reservoir host. Then it will spill over  will into us again. All thinking and planning about how to defend against Ebola virus disease in the future needs to take account of that reality.”4
The race to develop a vaccine is of course crucial for this particular outbreak and while it provided a wake up call to many in the bio-defence and public health communities alike, planning for emerging and reemerging disease strategies of the future will require the development of technologies in addition to vaccines and therapeutics. If, for example, diagnostics could have been run within minutes instead of hours or days, surely this most recent outbreak would have come under control more swiftly. While it is encouraging to see the international community call for vaccines this misses the point that preparing for pandemics requires an approach which is long term, not reactionary yet still responsive to swiftly changing conditions on the ground.  It requires a strategic approach that addresses public health care from a position which acknowledges future pandemics are highly likely and drug development and discovery, technology  and applications must be broad based to cover consecutive and unknown emerging pandemics. 
Fortunately, a number of anti-virals have had some success in vitro showing efficacy against this latest EBV, but we have had experience with Ebola and drug development had been on-going by several pharmaceutical firms prior to this recent outbreak. How comfortable are we with the idea of a synthetically produced viral outbreak going global? While it may seem, in the midst of the worlds worst Ebola outbreak, a bit remote to consider, perhaps a bit unreal, so too was the idea last year that an Ebola outbreak, one which we had previous experience in quickly containing, would claim the lives of 7,500 people and infect nearly 20,000. Preparation is key to containment. Colleagues today racing to find a vaccine or therapeutic against this epidemic would I'm sure suggest they are too busy coping with this outbreak to consider such luxury problems one envisions with the concept of 'synthetic biology' or 'synthetic viruses.' Yet we should pay close attention when Craig Venter, proposes bio-technologies such as the ability to 3D print vaccines  to counter this exact scenario. The message should be Ebola is bad but things could be much worse and we need to be planning for these eventualities in a comprehensive way, not simply racing to put out fires on the ground with squirt guns.  

Dr.Jill Bellamy is an internationally recognized expert on biological warfare and defence. She has formerly advised NATO and for the past seventeen years has represented a number of bio-pharmaceutical and government clients working on procurement strategy between NATO MS and Washington DC. Her private government relations consultancy Warfare Technology Analytics is based in the Netherlands. Dr. Bellamy's articles have appeared in the National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Sunday Times of London, Le Temps, Le Monde and the Jerusalem Post among other publications. She is a CBRN SME with the U.S. Department of Defence, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Information Analysis Center and CEO of Warfare Technology Analytics.

[1] Virology Blog about Viruses and Viral Disease, 18 September, 2014. URL:
2 Quammen, David, "Tracking a Serial Killer: Could Ebola Mutate to become more deadly?" National Geographic, 15, October, 2014. URL:
3 Ibid., Quammen
4 Ibid., Quammen

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