No, Ebola is NOT Airborne!

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Look, we all went through a pretty traumatic time in 2020 through…today, so it’s understandable if you see things that immediately put you back in February of 2020 and so you start crying and buying toilet paper. At least, that’s what I tell myself. It’s fine. Buy the toilet paper. Use it to wipe your tears.

And so, when monkeypox became a big news story this past summer, it happened: lots of people getting really scared that this was, essentially, COVID-22. (If you’re interested, I made a video about monkeypox myths like how it came from banging monkeys and whether or not it’s a sexually transmitted disease.) 

We’ve more or less survived monkeypox, so now it’s time for round two: ebola. And to make matters worse, this time there are even more similarities to early 2020, in that the current argument I’m seeing play out on social media is whether or not ebola is considered “airborne.” On the one hand, virologists, immunologists, and other experts say that we have nearly 50 years of research saying the answer is no, ebola is not airborne. On the other hand, we have a bunch of random people on Twitter saying “but what if it is???” Let’s explore each side, equally, since these are obviously two completely equal claims with an equal amount of evidence to support them.

I kid, I kid. I mean, I’m not kidding about the lopsided sides: the vast majority of respected experts on ebola say that it is not airborne, and while it’s always possible that it could mutate to become so that is very unlikely because ebola is actually quite stable. 

But I do want to give a little respect to people who are worried that it will become, or already is, airborne despite the World Health Organization’s statement to the contrary. Why? Well, because of that COVID-19 PTSD. The WHO and CDC screwed up their COVID response SO BADLY that they’ve managed to fuck up their ebola response before it even started. Our public health institutions emphatically insisted that COVID was not airborne at the start of the pandemic, instead of admitting that they just didn’t have enough data to know for sure yet. COVID-19 was new and unknown, China wasn’t forthcoming with information, and the US was run by an actual clown, so obviously there were a lot of blanks to fill in. By going early with “not airborne” and sticking with it long after it became clear that it WAS airborne under all but the strictest definitions, these organizations completely eroded public trust.

This is the direct result of those terrible decisions, and it even happened with monkeypox. “They SAY it’s not airborne but they ALSO SAID THAT ABOUT COVID!” It’s an overly simplistic, almost childish conclusion but the logic is sound: we can’t always just trust what the “experts” say. True! But here’s the less simplistic version: we can’t always blindly trust what the experts say, so let’s listen to what they’re saying and check for signs that they’re lying, or mistaken.

For instance, are there other experts at the same level who disagree? In this case, not really. This isn’t just the WHO declaring something about ebola – dozens of people who have studied ebola for years agree with them that it is not airborne, it probably won’t mutate to become airborne, and it is containable.

Next, is there some reason why the majority of experts would lie or be mistaken about this? Again, no: this isn’t a brand new disease in an authoritarian country with little transparency. Ebola has been studied for nearly 50 years, and the people who handled the last outbreak in 2014-ish are still here and working and can inform us on how to handle this one.

So just to reiterate, no! We should trust the experts: ebola is not airborne.

Okay, now let’s get into the nitty gritty. Ebola IS an absolutely horrific disease that kills about half of the people it infects. There is a vaccine for some versions, but not for the version that cropped up in mid-September in Uganda. This isn’t because it’s impossible to make a vaccine for it, it’s because it’s very rare and rich countries that are generally unaffected have not prioritized funding to do it.  For more on that, see this video I made last month on what Joe Biden means when he says the pandemic is “over”: humanity has the ability to actually control these diseases, but we don’t put the money or the work into it.

So it is with ebola. Now, the US DID care quite a bit about ebola back in 2014, because we were terrified that it was going to come kill us. It was an outbreak that happened in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, from 2013 to 2017. In September of 2014, a Liberian man traveled to Texas, where he then fell ill from ebola and died. Two nurses who tended to him contracted the virus but survived.

That one death – the only ebola death to happen in the US for the duration of the epidemic – sent politicians and news organizations into an absolute meltdown, calling for travel bans and the forced isolation of anyone who so much as happened to see Africa on a map. They also started fear-mongering about the idea that ebola is or could become airborne, like in this unfortunate NY Times op-ed by Michael T. Osterholm, an actual respected epidemiologist who was immediately and forcefully excoriated by researchers who had been studying ebola at the time. All of the fear was for nought, as Tara C. Smith pointed out the following year in Slate: there was no US outbreak and everything was quickly contained in West Africa with no travel bans needed, thanks to funding from Western nations and the hard work of organizations like Doctors without Borders.

So let’s talk about this “airborne” thing. This isn’t like the argument with COVID-19, where a virus isn’t considered airborne if it floats around a little bit but then quickly drops to surfaces. Ebola is different: it can be made into an aerosol that you can spray into someone’s mouth, if that’s the sort of thing you like to do with your time. But from there, the virus quickly moves into the bloodstream, meaning that there’s not enough virus left in the lungs for the infected person to then spray back out into their environment. Aerosol ebola can get in, but it can’t get out. I guess it’s like ebola is Don Henley and your lungs are the Hotel California.

For a deeper dive on transmission, check out this excellent Twitter thread from Dr. Angela Rasmussen, but the tl;dr is that the primary spread of ebola is through contact with blood and other bodily fluids. So, why do healthcare workers and scientists wear PPE like masks when working around the virus? As Dr. Rasmussen points out, the virus is heavily concentrated in blood, and scientists studying that blood often need to do things like put it in a centrifuge, which can aeresolize it. It wouldn’t lead to an outbreak, in that those scientists who got infected wouldn’t pass the airborne virus on to others, but it would very much suck for those scientists! So, better safe than sorry.

And that’s why, when the experts insist that we understand that ebola is not airborne, they aren’t calling for these frontline workers to NOT take precautions and wear masks. They’re not even arguing for you, the random person 9,000 miles from Uganda, to not wear a mask. Wear a mask! Please, for the love of humanity, wear a fucking mask. No, they bring this all up because they don’t want people to panic over nothing. Again. They want you to have the facts, so that we can make informed decisions about how to react to this outbreak. Closing our borders? Probably not at all helpful for a virus that spreads via bodily fluids. Aid to NGOs working on the ground to treat the infected? Helpful! Worrying over the unlikely event that ebola will mutate to be airborne? Not helpful for a virus that has remained stable for at least 47 years. Pumping money into research to fast track a vaccine? Helpful, AND will ACTUALLY reduce the chances of the virus mutating at all! Like how it would with COVID! If we all got vaccinated!

As usual, my advice is, somewhat scarily, the same as it was in February of 2020: don’t panic (if you’re not in a place where there’s an outbreak), wear a mask (for COVID), and get vaccinated (for COVID).

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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