It’s good to be aware of the cockamamie Ebola conspiracy theories being spread on the internet and media. One of those theories is that Ebola is a bio-weapon for ISIS. According to Slate, this is not true. In fact, it wouldn’t even make sense.
Forbes and the Daily Mail claim it is not as well. It also isn’t the final refuge of a lone wolf on a suicide mission, in the words of Fox News. It also isn’t a U.S.-built race-targeting bio-weapon, as the leader of the Nation of Islam declared.
Ebola is real and scary disease. But it isn’t a bioweapon, unless you want to be the most incompetent bioterrorist in history.
According to Slate, it doesn’t spread quickly—its R0, a measure of how infectious a virus is, is about 2. That means that, in a population where everyone is at risk, each infected person will, on average, infect two more people. But because someone with Ebola is infectious only when she shows symptoms, there are plenty of chances to clamp down on an outbreak in a country with a developed public health system.
And unlike some bioweapons, such as anthrax, Ebola’s transmission mechanism makes it really hard to weaponize. Anthrax spores can be dried and milled so they form little particles that can float on the air and be inhaled. Ebola requires the transmission of bodily fluids, and those don’t make good weapons.
And – even though you may have heard this – Ebola is not “airborne.” The one study talked about showed that pigs could transmit Ebola to macaques through an unknown mechanism that may have involved respiratory droplets. The researchers noted, however, that they couldn’t get macaques to transmit it to each other. The take-home from the study is really that pigs can spread Ebola.
A terrorist organization would have to go door to door with bags of blood and vomit to infect even a handful of people—and you’d probably notice it.
What about “suicide sneezers” – someone who deliberately infects herself with Ebola and then tries to pass it on to others?
That’s a losing game for the terrorist. Someone with Ebola isn’t infectious until she has symptoms, and even then, there is often only a small window for action before the disease takes hold. Many people who contract Ebola do so while caring for someone who is crippled by the affliction. A terrorist who wants to infect others isn’t likely to be functional enough to run around spreading the disease for very long—and even then, will find it hard to transmit the virus.
As for conspiracies about engineered Ebola, we know the virus appeared in 1976. The 1970s was also a time when genetic engineering was in its infancy—no one could’ve engineered a virus, even if he’d wanted to. Short of a time-traveling bioterrorist, that particular theory isn’t tenable.
What about now, though? Could a bioterrorist group—or, more likely, a secret national bioweapons program, like the one run by the Soviet Union during the Cold War—take Ebola and modify it to be airborne or more contagious?
It isn’t likely. Why? One, because it is really difficult—we just don’t know enough about viruses to spontaneously engineer new traits.
According to Slate, “There is also a whole host of other nasty bugs that are already better designed to be weapons. Bugs like smallpox. If terrorists are going to go to all the trouble of engineering a bioweapon, they are likely to pick a much, much better starting point than Ebola.”
The fear that an emerging infectious disease could in fact be a weapon is not new. In 1918, Lt. Col. Philip S. Doane voiced a suspicion that the pandemic “Spanish flu” strain was in fact a germ weapon wielded by German forces. More recently, an Australian professor of epidemiology argued that Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome could be a bioterror agent.
However, Ebola is a lousy bioweapon if the object is to kill people. As the current hysteria over an easily contained and not very contagious disease shows, it’d be perfect for a bioterrorist wanting to create panic and mayhem.
According to Slate, Ebola isn’t a weapon; it’s the collision between humans and their environment. It’s about the failure of public health in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. And it’s a failure, on our parts, to act and assist the people of these countries. It has been documented, for example, that while the U.S. has 240 doctors per 100,000 people, Sierra Leone has 2 doctors per 100,000 people.
In developed countries, the biggest threat is not the terrorist, but fear. That fear is causing lawmakers to campaign for quarantine, even though it is unlikely to work. That fear is also causing politicians to claim that we should seal the border to Mexico.