At the peak of the Ebola epidemic last fall came a frightening new possibility: a mutation that could allow the disease to spread through the air. University of Florida researchers have now dispelled this concern using data from current and past Ebola outbreaks. The team revealed its findings in a study published May 14 in Nature Scientific Reports.
While concern about airborne Ebola may persist, the likelihood of the virus becoming an airborne infection is extremely low, says lead author Dr. Taj Azarian, a recent graduate of the doctoral program in epidemiology at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and the College of Medicine.
“We know of no virus that has radically changed its mode of transmission due to genetic mutations,” he said. “It seems the Ebola virus is more stable than earlier studies suggested.”
In August, an international research team found that genetic changes in the virus were occurring twice as fast as previously seen. In September, a U.S. researcher caused a stir by suggesting that the virus could mutate to become transmissible through the air.
In the current study, the research team — led by associate professor Dr. Marco Salemi of UF’s department of pathology and Emerging Pathogens Institute, in collaboration with the Italian Institute of Health — looked at samples from patients and great apes collected during Ebola epidemics from 1976 through 2014. They discovered that most genetic changes are lost between epidemic waves and found little evidence to support the evolution of a more powerful or transmissible virus. That is good news not only for Central and West Africa, but for researchers developing tests, vaccines, and treatments for Ebola.