Ebola, Climate Change and Going Airborne — Merciless Outbreak Raises Fears

  • UN Warns of Remote Possibility Ebola Could Become Airborne
  • 3,330 dead and more than 7,100 infected during recent outbreak
  • 5 new infections every hour
  • One confirmed US case of Ebola in Texas, another suspected in Hawaii. Both air travelers from Africa.
  • US dispatches 1,400 troops to Liberia to aid in massive effort to contain the virus
  • Death rate for Ebola is 25-90 percent
  • Climate change only indirectly related to current outbreak



(Current extent of Ebola outbreak in West Africa, according to CDC sources. Image source: Google/CDC)

As of this July of 2014, the number of recorded Ebola deaths worldwide since the mid 1970s was a little over 1,500 with less than 3,000 infections. That was before a massive outbreak centering on Sierra Leone in Africa killed more than 3,300 and infected more than 7,100.

Today, the estimated rate of infection is about 5 persons every hour. Persons infected with the virus have come as far as Texas in the United States prompting the immediate US quarantine of over 100 people thought to have been exposed. In total, this outbreak is likely to infect more than 20,000. And that’s if a massive international effort to stop the virus is effective.

It’s an effort that includes all the resources the UN has available to fight and contain diseases. An effort that has resulted in the mobilization of 1,400 US Military troops from Fort Campbell Kentucky bound for the West African hot zone.

Ebola — A Deadly Killer

Some years ago, I managed the editing of a Jane’s emergency response guide called The Chem-bio Handbook. The handbook was a compilation of information from leading experts about the world’s most deadly poisons and diseases. A quick reference guide for first responders unfortunate enough to have to deal with the most nightmarish toxins and infections dreamed up by nature or humankind.

Among these, Ebola was certainly one of the most feared and mysterious.

Ebola progression

(Ebola progression of symptoms. Image source: CDC — Ebola.)

It was transferred by contact with bodily fluids — blood, sweat, saliva, semen, excrement. It waited latent in the body for between two and twenty one days before first flaring into flu-like symptoms. Headache, fever, sore throat, weakness, muscle pain. These indistinct symptoms could go along with a hundred other illnesses. But after some days, Ebola went hemorrhagic. At this point vomiting, diarrhea, rash, failing liver and kidneys, and internal and external bleeding displayed Ebola’s all too familiar and terrifying call signs.

In the end, the disease claimed between 25 and 90 percent of all those who fell ill with it. A death rate that is among the worst of the worst for any disease now active on the Earth.

Treatment for the illness is primarily limited to supportive care and isolating the patient to prevent the infection from spreading. But during recent years a serum derived from the blood of victims who have survived the illness has provided some hope for raising recovery rates. Investigation for an effective vaccine is ongoing.

Rapid Mutation

One issue with the current strain of Ebola now impacting Seirra Leone and broader Africa is that it is a rapid mutator. The strain separated from the standard forms of Ebola seen in humans about ten years ago. Since that time, the virus has accumulated about 395 mutations. After leaping back to humans this summer, the virus had accumulated 5o new mutations in just one month.

The problem with rapid mutation is that it gives the virus a chance to become more virulent. In the worst case, some researchers and international officials fear that the virus could become airborne.

Today, Anthony Banbury, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative, raised these dire concerns in public stating:

‘The longer [Ebola] moves around in human hosts in the virulent melting pot that is West Africa, the more chances increase that it could mutate. [Airborne contagion] is a nightmare scenario, and unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out.’

Most researchers consider the risk for such a transfer from fluid-borne to airborne infection for any illness, even a rapid mutator, to be very low. So it is rather odd that the UN’s special representative would voice these fears without special cause for concern.

Highest Risk Event Ever

This high level of concern may well be related to the terrors UN and international aid workers are witnessing on the ground.

Mr. Banbury, who has worked with the UN on the issue of dangerous and infectious diseases, wars, natural disasters and other extreme events since 1988 appeared both horrified and taken aback by the ferocity of the current outbreak:

“We have never seen anything like it. In a career working in these kinds of situations, wars, natural disasters – I have never seen anything as serious or dangerous or high risk as this one. I’ve heard other people saying this as well, senior figures who are not being alarmist. Behind closed doors, they are saying they have never seen anything as bad,” he said.

In order to contain the outbreak, the international community is scrambling to set up thousands of clinics and isolation centers throughout affected regions. The idea is to isolate more than 70 percent of the infected persons to prevent the virus from making yet another explosive advance. Ultimately, the goal is to get a reduction in cases after a strong three-month-long response:

“We intend to see a significant improvement in the 30 to 60-day window, so that by 90 days the curve is headed in the right direction. We are putting resources in place very fast, and we will continue to flow in. It is not all there at the moment,” Mr Banbury said. “That’s the theory and that’s the plan. If it spreads in an urban setting, then it’s a different story.”

“I would not say I am confident we will succeed [in the 90-day plan] given the absolutely merciless numbers of the spread and what needs to be done to get it under control. These are extremely, extremely ambitious targets, set by doctors. We are blowing down bureaucratic barriers to get things done…but I don’t know if it will be enough…I would not want to give the impression that we can wave a magic wand.”

Climate Change an Indirect Factor

Back in August, both Newsweek and MSNBC provided speculative stories raising the possibility that the current Ebola outbreak was directly related to climate change. But unlike vector driven illnesses such as Cholera and Malaria, it is very difficult to pin down a specific link between Ebola and the human-caused warming of the globe.

Related factors such increasing poverty and hunger driving humans to consume more bush meat and therefore expose themselves to higher risk of contracting an animal-borne infection such as Ebola are likely at play. And larger factors such as increasing human population density, global travel, and human concentration into urban centers all likely increase risks linked to Ebola. But the heat driven influences on Ebola are far less than expanding the range of Malaria bearing mosquitos or a proliferation of flooding events greatly magnifying the risk of Cholera outbreaks.

It is worth noting, however, that diseases, overall, tend to become more virulent with warming as pathogen killing cold spells are retreating further and further poleward.


Please See the CDC Website for Official Information on Ebola and for Frequent Updates

UN Chief Raises Warning That Ebola Could Become Airborne

Ebola Could Become Airborne

Ebola in the Air?

Nature: Ebola Mutating Rapidly as it Spreads

Nightmare Chance that Ebola Could Become Airborne, UN Warns

Fort Campbell Troops Headed to Liberia to Fight Ebola


Media Jumps to Conclusions on Ebola and Climate Change





Leave a comment


  1. vardarac

     /  October 3, 2014

    If this becomes a serious outbreak in the US, I imagine there would be massive pressure on MIT to move DRACOs out of the experimental phase. I don’t want to think about what’ll happen before that succeeds… Or if it doesn’t.

    • I hope not.

      I posted the optimistic estimates for total cases here. Seen pessimistic estimates in the range of 1 million +

      DRACO is an interesting antiviral. Probably nowhere near ready for large scale production.

  2. Having worked at Isaac Newton Square in Reston VA in ~91/92, I was in the building next to the Ebola Reston outbreak. We stood around while having coffee watching the folks from Maryland load the corpses of the monkeys in trash bags into the trunks & back seats of cars.

    A few days later, an air lock tunnel was placed on a side entrance and the only entry / exit was with a biohazard suit. The daycare on the other side of a wood fence (roughly 20 feet away) was never notified or alerted to this. They found out when the noise of construction caught their attention, but were not told what it was.

    When the bodies were removed, furnture & fixtures were pulled out. Then all of the cages were plasma cut apart and removed, followed by the drywall. After the drywall the interior studs were pulled. The place was mopped down with bleach.

    Once all of this was finished, a “For Lease” sign went up.

    NOTE: Ebola lacks the protein layer to allow for becoming airborne (the media hype on that is just scare fluff). It must pass by touch (bodily, or within 72 hrs on a surface). Sunlight breaks it down quickly. Hot, humid, no ultraviolet and it can survive up to 72 hours on a surface outside of a host.

  3. Looking at the ~35,000 crowded in Alaska on the coast I was thinking that many walruses must eat a heck of a lot. Usually spread out on ice flows they are now crowded. Therefore the area around where they are could be getting depleted for food. This could leave the walruses vulnerable in terms of bulking up for winter.

    This sound like a reasonable concern?

  4. Jay M

     /  October 3, 2014

    SFO handled 45,000,000 passengers in 2013. What a vast throng passes across the kerosene fueled skies.

  5. james cole

     /  October 3, 2014

    ” Michael T. Osterholm – director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota – wrote in the New York Times last month:

    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. Each new infection represents trillions of throws of the genetic dice.

    If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola.”

    I have no experience in this field, but I respect Michael Osterholm. Also, a close family friend in Germany works on a team that responds to viral outbreaks. In conversation, he is very conservative, but he does say, “if you knew what I knew about emerging viruses, you would sleep less well.” I understand Ebola does not have what it needs to go airborne, but, isn’t that what mutation is all about, creating that new element the virus need to travel a different route? Ebola didn’t come in the creation, it mutated into Ebola, so I know for a certain fact, It Can Mutate and change in very real ways. No?

    • It’s possible. But the precedent of history is a pretty high bar. We’ve never observed a radical change in transmission vector for a human virus like what we’re now talking about with Ebola.

      That said, the warnings coming from the conservative CDC and the UN, which also tends to be rather mum on risk is a bit troubling.

  6. Speaking of airborne dangers and their scenarios, rapid worldwide transmission is certainly a high probability, or possibility, in this jet age of air travel.
    Here’s some dated but useful numbers:

    ‘Airline Industry Overview

    The international airline industry provides service to virtually every corner of the globe, and has been an integral part of the creation of a global economy.
    … the global airline industry consists of over 2000 airlines operating more than 23,000 aircraft, providing service to over 3700 airports. In 2006, the world’s airlines flew almost 28 million scheduled flight departures and carried over 2 billion passengers [1]. The growth of world air travel has averaged approximately 5% per year over the past 30 years…

    • Below are are more recent figures.
      (Also, keep in mind that major airports serving international travel are small cities and local/regional transportation hubs.)

      ‘​MONTRÉAL, 18 December 2012 ─ Some 2.9 billion people used air transport to help them realize their business and tourism needs in 2012, according to preliminary figures on scheduled services released today by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

      … International traffic grew by 6.5 percent in 2012, the same rate as the previous year. The highest growth for international traffic was registered by the airlines of the Middle East followed by Latin America and the Caribbean. African carriers registered growth almost seven times higher than their 2011 results, at 7.4 percent compared to 1.1 percent.

      This makes Africa the third fastest growing international market in 2012, mainly due to the improved performance of airlines registered in North Africa due to increased political stability in the sub-region.

  7. Apneaman

     /  October 3, 2014

    A good explanation here why I continue to believe we will never change deniers minds nor will the reality of a personal climate disaster. Given that making money is akin to a religion in our society you can throw in all the people who are perfectly comfortable with the present arrangement too. We’ll call them the minimizers and delayers.

    The Unpersuadables

    “We can hardly be surprised if some feel an instinctive hostility towards [science], for it is fundamentally inhuman.”

    “Consciousness is the first storyteller. It tells us that we have free will, provides explanations for our actions, and presents self as hero. Religions and ideologies play into the hero plot since they match up well with the individual’s moral hunches and provide external justification. They validate emotional instincts, provide purpose and a common enemy. They can be useful but can also be dangerous; people have died for false beliefs.”

    • Go to Wikipedia and look up “cognitive bias” if you want to view all the the ways humans resist changing attitudes and beliefs..

      • Part of it is that extremism drives polarization. You have the polarizes on the right and then you have the hopeless believers in climate change who are saying that we’re going down and nothing can be done.

        If you’re faced with a terrible consequence with no way out, I think the knee jerk reaction is denial. That’s not to say we shouldn’t look at reality. But hopelessness is a big driving force for climate change denial.

  8. calm down…it’s just population control.

    • rayduray

       /  October 3, 2014

      …. and not terribly effective at that.

      Consider, every 4.5 days another 1,000,000 humans are added to our burgeoning population.

      As the saying goes, demographics is destiny:

      • Disease, for some reason, has a tendency to drive spiking birth rates in the impacted regions. Probably a natural response from the days when humans weren’t quite so ubiquitous.

        If you’re talking about bending down the human population curve, what you really need is less than two children oer couple as the global average. There are a lot if measures which can impact this. But people behaving responsibly is a strong measure as well.

    • Not the way you want it to happen. You simply don’t need tragedy, pain, and suffering of this kind. We can restrain population by lowering births. Adding deaths is a travesty.

  9. Mark from New England

     /  October 3, 2014

    Curious: The US Govt. through the CDC holds a patent on a variant of the Ebola virus called ‘EboBun’.

    Actual patent is here:

    It’s 60 pages long. Anyone know any microbiologists or infectious disease specialists?

    Most likely this is so the CDC can attempt to develop a vaccine or other effective treatments. But it also appears after cursory examination that the CDC wants to tinker with the virus.

    Note: I have not yet read the full patent, which I eventually will to try to apply my meager critical thinking skills to the challenge 😉

    • Mark from New England

       /  October 3, 2014

      It looks upon further cursory examination to be primarily aimed at developing a vaccine, and undertaking a full genetic sequencing of the EboBun virus. But phrases like ‘recombinantly prepared variation’ (in # 0046 in the document) make me wonder if experimentation on this variant of Ebola is also an intent of the patent.

    • Probably for lab testing and vaccine development. We stopped bio weapons some time ago here and those kinds of operations would have been at a military facility and not CDC.

      The strain currently active originated in Guinea. It is a version of the African EBOV strain. The genetic essays used to ID the virus earlier this year showed a 97 percent match to the EBOV strain. We’re fortunate that this is not Zaire EBOV, which almost always has a 90 percent lethality.

  10. The town of Porterville in central valley Ca has had no water now for 5 months. Groundwater is gone.

    • Rough… I suppose they must have it trucked in now.

    • james cole

       /  October 3, 2014

      What is the prospect for agriculture in the Central Valley going forward? Has some agriculture simply come to a halt, or is there still enough water to struggle on? I read conservative economics blogs daily, there is a huge blame game going on, most all of it directed at liberal politicians for their regulations on water, and water rights. Nobody seems to blame climate, it is the same old, “blame government”, as if if all regulations were gone, water would flow where needed and in quantities needed. This foolish tagging of every issue with a liberal versus conservative label is something that seems ingrained in American thought so deep that people can’t adjust to rational analysis and apportioning of blame where it belongs based on rational and scientific thought. As if a giant pool of water is available in the market, but can’t come to market due to government regulations!

      • If we deregulate, the water would be gone about as fast as you could blink. The regulation is about fair sharing of what water remains and apportioning some for the future.

  11. JPL

     /  October 3, 2014

    I saw a news story last evening on CBC and the person being interviewed (I didn’t catch his name) described the ebola outbreak situation something like this: Infections are increasing exponentially but the increase in response has only been linear and needs massive global resources dedicated to the fight.
    Albert Bartlett’s famous quote rings true once again… “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

    Robert thanks for your coverage of this. This is black swan territory.


    • Thanks John. These emerging diseases are certainly a broader concern — one that includes the issue of climate change. And one that touches so much more. The black swan of Ebola has always been a terrifying specter to me.

      I’ve been monitoring this outbreak since early this year. We are now well more than two standard deviations outside a ‘normal’ Ebola outbreak. In my view, it was time to shoot up a flare even though this is a bit outside the realm of what I typically cover here.

      If you were to draw a comparison between our current response to Ebola and our failure to respond to climate change, the differences are dramatically starker than simply not being able to deal with an exponential event. As you saliently note, we certainly have problems with the exponential. But with one problem, there is an active sabotage of even that difficult to level response.

      If Ebola were climate change, we’d have members of Congress saying they don’t believe in Ebola or that they’re not qualified to talk about Ebola because that’s for epidemiologists. We’d see a vast media blackout on Ebola coverage from conservative leaning sources. We’d see pundits occasionally making fun of the Ebola threat and lampooning scientists for working to confront it. We’d have even moderate media sources writing reports on Ebola entitled ‘Scientists Say Ebola Poses Risks’ rather than highlighting those risks themselves. We’d have industries set up to profit from people getting sick with Ebola and defending those profit models by broad-scale lobbying in Congress. In the current election, we’d have politicians trying not to talk at all about Ebola and whole sections of media abetting them in that effort.

      Perhaps it’s easier to be scared of a virus than of changes in the weather and climate that rob us of our food, make people poor, provide expanded vectors and breeding grounds for deadly disease, kill and displace whole species, radically alter the geophysical nature of the planet, displace and make more persons homeless than warfare, and that, so far this year, has been linked to the deaths of over 280,000 souls. A situation that will terribly worsen, so that by mid century, the current climate-driven crises we experience now will look like a cake walk.

      This is not to down-play the severe threat of Ebola. Nor to say that the prior response was adequate to the threat posed by the virus. Obviously, it was not, or we wouldn’t be here now. Humans, as you so perceptively note, have a problem with the exponential.

      But it does show that, even though we’re generally not too great at dealing with such swiftly scaling problems, the difference between our response to Ebola and climate change is the difference between night and day. One threat we have recognized, identified, and organized massive resources for response. The other threat has been denied to the point that the organs of government are crippled and cannot provide effective response.

      Perhaps this is due to the fact that we are only in the early stages of the climate crisis — perhaps comparable to the earlier stages of the Ebola outbreak this year. But to my mind this is no excuse as the scientific warning for the inevitable terrible impacts of ramping climate change have been unequivocal.

      If Ebola does break through, it will do so after humans did everything they could to stop it. The same cannot yet be said for climate change.

  12. Andy (at work)

     /  October 3, 2014

    I don’t see Ebola as a mass global event at this moment due to it’s current transmission vector. That being said, I see an opportunity for it to become more virulent and attain the ability to become a global event if left unchecked, and if time works on it’s side.

    The rationale is as follows. Ebola currently transmits by physical transmission. This being directly with an infected individual, a surface which has not been exposed to ultraviolet light within 48-72 hours, and potentially via exhaled droplets (as Robert mentioned above).

    An infected individual will contain billions of copies of the Ebola virus. The Ebola virus appears to exhibit as rapid mutation cycle (it is only 19,000 nucleotides long wound as RNA). We talk about a 2-3 week period in the media of the outbreak cycle, however if one looks at a single individual suffering for Ebola the replication cycle within that one host is much shorter.

    Infect a cell via receptors, tear it apart for raw material, replicate, cell bursts, move on to the next one. The replication rate is 8 hours. One cell may spawn several hundred thousand copies of Ebola. The cell will do this for ~16 hours to 3 days before breaking apart.

    10 cells will spawn several million copies of Ebola. Now we circle back to the rapid mutation. Mutation requires changes between generations with continuation, successful changes, and failures. Depending on the percentage of mutations which occur within a single cell may determine how often the opportunity for a successful change to occur.

    There have been over 250 successful mutations identified by Aug 28 (and likely more, the sample volume for this was low).

    The factors in determining a successful mutation may include the ability to remain viable for longer periods outside of a host on a surface. It may include the ability to lengthen the period of time before symptoms become identifiable on a host, the ability to cross into a companion population (such a swine) and then back. Perhaps most importantly the ability to develop the ability to not be so vulnerable to ultraviolet light. If a sub strain began to move in that direction then that will cause problems as the deposited viral sample will then be viable to reinfect a new host for a much longer period in such areas as the armrest on an airplane, bus, taxi, door handle etc…

    I see the biggest danger is the simplicity of the RNA sequence coupled with the apparent flexibility in multiple mutations within a single host. It provides the opportunity for more effective sub strains to evolve.

    • I think this is a good analysis of the risks involved with Ebola and such concerns are probably why the UN and international disease fighters are now so worried that Ebola will simply become established in the human population.

      From that point, we move from outbreak being the primary threat to the issue of a continuous and ongoing containment of a very deadly illness. And containment of a rapid mutator like Ebola could be a terrible nightmare as the surviving strains of the virus will almost certainly be more resilient and more well adapted to human infection over time.

      Such an event is high risk now and something the responders are very concerned about.

  13. Oct. 3, 2014: A very large area high pressure over western USA:

    • Oct. 3, 2014: The jet stream plunges deep into the Midwest and further south:

    • Andy (at work)

       /  October 3, 2014

      Yup, can feel it outside….it’s a scorcher today.

    • Deep ridge over the US West. Linking ridge from the Bering to Siberia and on through Mongolia. Just a massive extent.

      Powerful low off Greenland wait to advance toward the UK.

      Lows and highs in the Arctic prefer Fram Strait ice export.

      Massive trough digging in through central US heightens storm risk again.

      Lows with the potential to form nor’easters lurk off US East Coast. Large moisture train feeds from Pacific through the GoM through the Atlantic Seaboard and regions off shore. Colocation with deep trough extending through the central US bears watching.

      DT — this is September 30 image.

  14. Kevin Jones

     /  October 3, 2014

    1000 more troops off to hunt ‘Ebolas’. Brilliant.

  15. Kevin Jones

     /  October 3, 2014

    Sad to say,but fear so, Robert. (hard to keep up with this modern world….)

  16. Kevin Jones

     /  October 4, 2014
    • I think it’s probably good to have strong oversight of the issues raised. That said, the military response is on the order of a disaster relief mission. Don’t really see Liberia as a staging area.

  17. wili

     /  October 5, 2014

    robert, I may be missing something, but I think your map may be woefully out of date. It looks like this map from July 20th:

    Here’s a link to a more recent WHO map:
    and to a more recent CDC one:

  1. Ebola, Climate Change and Going Airborne — Merciless Outbreak Raises Fears | robertscrib bler | Enjeux énergies et environnement

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