Ebola: Horror and Hope for a Cure

As an unprecedented outbreak of Ebola crosses borders in West Africa, people are asking new questions about the virus and its potential to turn into a global pandemic (hint: it’s not gonna happen). Greg Laden writes “The disease is too hot to not burn itself out, and it has no human reservoir. Ebola accidentally broke into the human population earlier this year or late last year.” The current numbers from the WHO suggest 1800 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola so far with a mortality rate edging down toward 55%.

Last week some in the U.S. objected to bringing two American patients back home, but Tara C. Smith writes that Ebola has been there all along, in government labs, while related viruses like Lassa and Marburg have been imported by infected travelers without causing additional cases. The one characteristic of Ebola we can be thankful for is that it is only spread through contact with bodily fluids, not through the air like a cold or flu. Smith concludes, “Ebola is exotic and its symptoms can be terrifying, but also much easier to contain by people who know their stuff.” Meanwhile, Greg Laden writes that an extremely rare, untested ‘cure’ for the illness does exist, and it has also been given to the two infected Americans. He’s referring to anti-serum, i.e. blood serum containing natural Ebola antibodies modelled after those generated by infected mice. On Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Sandra Porter shows how the antibodies lock onto viral proteins, and says it is time to focus on mass-producing an effective antiserum for this horrible disease. On ERV, Abbie Smith explains how the manufacturing process works: genetically modifying viruses to contain blueprints for parts of Ebola antibodies, putting the viruses in bacteria as delivery vehicles, and using the bacteria to infect GMO tobacco plants whose cellular machinery will be hijacked to make molecules. Smith writes, “Plants are a pretty cheap way to produce a lot of protein. Blow up the plant cells, purify your protein, and BAM! A ton of anti-Ebola antibodies.”


Undead Science

On Aetiology, Tara C. Smith continues her series on the science of The Walking Dead, explaining how diseases spread and how they might cause zombiism. One thing that would be observed in any real contagion would be an incubation period— the time between when a virus (for example) enters your body and you start showing symptoms of infection. For a virus like the flu, this could be about two days during which you don’t feel sick but could still be infecting people around you—even if you don’t bite them. Tara also expresses nerd rage at the show’s “doctors” pursuing antibiotics to treat the flu, since antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.  On ERV, Abbie Smith presents interesting data on infectious killers in North America, both vanquished and ongoing. The last case of Smallpox was documented in 1977. But flu bugs, which live in “reservoirs” in other animal species, mutate all the time, and some years’ flus are deadlier than others.

For Halloween, Chad Orzel explained how to base a sexy costume on a bunch of nerdy white guys, such as Niels Bohr: “a little Brylcreem, a soccer ball, and a lot of mumbling and equivocation, and you’re good to go.” On Pharyngula, PZ Myers wondered if Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is thirsting for cheap technology is the grave, like a do-it-yourself photomicrography setup that lets you take pictures of wee beasties with your smartphone.  And Ethan Seigel pulls us back from the whole death-and-decay thing with his latest costume: Rainbow Dash from the cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

New Flu Emerges in China

A new strain of bird flu is circulating in China, and authorities are keeping a close eye on a potentially disastrous scenario.  On Aetiology, Tara C. Smith writes that by now, “the microbe may have already become established in the population, adapting to humans stealthily before we were even aware of it.”  Greg Laden writes, unlike H1N1 in 2009, the new H7N9 doesn’t sicken birds, making it more difficult to identify reservoirs of the virus.  And according to the latest reports, it doesn’t make all people sick either.  Documented infections are widespread in a populous region, and of more than 100 known cases, twenty people have died.  So far there is no reason to panic—but the real threat lies in further mutation of the virus, and the emergence of a killer global flu.