Could The Ebola Virus Outbreak Become Airborne? Evolutionary Theory Seems To Say 'No'

Patrick Frye

The possibility of an airborne Ebola virus outbreak has been called "nightmare scenario" by health officials in the United Nations. But are we looking at a Hollywood scenario or does the science of evolutionary theory provide a good reason to sleep soundly at night.

In a related report by the Inquisitr, some Christians believe the Ebola virus could evolve to the point that it becomes deadly enough to meet the standard for the Bible's "end of times" prophecy, which predicts a quarter of the world's population will die from diseases before the end of the world. While that may sound odd to some Darwinists, keep in mind there are many theistic evolutionists throughout the world, and both Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates do agree with Darwinists on many aspects of evolutionary theory.

Making the Ebola virus airborne is probably another area where everyone would agree. Although some in the media have compared the Ebola outbreak to the Spanish flu, which killed an estimated 25 to 50 million people less than one hundred years ago, the scientists working in the trenches are do not believe an airborne Ebola virus will come easily. For example, Harvard geneticist Pardis Sabeti worked on the genetic sequence for the Ebola virus during this summer and he believes there's no reason to panic.

"That's a worst case scenario, but I'm actually glad we're thinking worst case scenarios," says Sabeti, an infectious disease researcher at the Broad Institute and Harvard. "I don't want people to be scared. I just want them to be prepared. We have in our office something that says 'No Wishful Thinking.' We have to be ready for everything."

The reason this discussion is taking place in the context of statistical likelihood is due to evolutionary theory. There are multiple reasons an airborne Ebola virus is unlikely to happen.

First of all, the comparison with the Spanish Flu is actually a bad one based upon the differences. A new strain of Influenza occurs when two strains infect the same cells and recombine to form a new whole. Fortunately, the Ebola virus apparently doesn't possess this capability, so creating a new hybrid isn't going to pop out of thin air, nor is it considered likely at all that the Ebola virus could "borrow" genetic information from Influenza through a very complicated and unlikely scenario.

Secondly, since the Ebola virus is so deadly in humans it's not given much time at all to develop an adaptive mutation before dying with the host. In short, humans are not a very good host for the Ebola virus. At the same time, it could be argued this provides selective pressure to spread more efficiently, albeit a weak one. Regardless, the Ebola virus comes from a group of viruses typically found in plants and its mode of transmission is the same (not airborne). As a comparison, the parasitic disease Malaria may develop drug resistance via small genetic changes but its mode of transmission hasn't change.

Lastly, the existing features of the Ebola virus does not seem to lend itself to going airborne. The Ebola virus does not infect the tissues in the respiratory system needed to be sent easily out via a sneeze or a cough. This is not a trivial change since it would need to develop new surface proteins necessary to interact with the host cells. In addition, although the Ebola virus can survive inside saliva outside the human host, it becomes inactive within minutes in tests performed by researchers. Its lipid membrane is apparently ineffective at protecting the virus at room temperatures on surfaces, so it might be presumed the same is true if the virus was somehow floating in the air.