Is Ebola More Deadly Than It Was 40 Years Ago?


Although the Ebola virus has mutated, a British study revealed that it is not any more or less harmful than it was during the first outbreak in 1976.

Although the Ebola virus has mutated, a British study revealed that it is not any more or less harmful than it was during the first outbreak in 1976.

Researchers from The University of Manchester used a computer-based approach, which was originally developed to find changes in HIV-1, to evaluate each case of Ebola since the original outbreak. The analysis was able to produce data while the outbreak was in motion and without exposing the team to the contagious virus. They evaluated the changes that took place in the RNA of the virus and could predict the effects of those changes from there.

The current outbreak has claimed nearly 10,500 lives, the most in history, however, that does not mean that it is more dangerous than before.

“What we found was that whilst Ebola is mutating, it isn’t evolving to the point of adapting to become more or less virulent,” Simon Lovell, BSc, PhD, professor of molecular biology at Manchester, said in a news release. “The function of the virus has remained the same over the past four decades which really surprised us.”

Published in Virology, this discovery is good news because it means that the method could become a useful tool for predicting other contagious illnesses in the future.

David Robertson, BSc, PhD, also pointed out that since Ebola is not evolving in terms of virulence, there are very high odds that the vaccinations and treatments created during this most recent outbreak will work. However, along with the positive outlook comes challenges.

“Unfortunately this does mean the Ebola virus that has now emerged on several occasions since the 1970s will very probably do so again,” Lovell said.

On the flip side, a key part of this study highlights the need to know when a virus becomes less harmful on a functional level. While that would be a positive change, the scientists said that if Ebola were to become less deadly then symptoms may not be shown in patients as quickly. This could lead the disease to spread more widespread, therefore, the earlier that analysts are able to identify important changes the better.

“As scientists our role is to worry about the potential changes our research tool allows us to map what is happening within a virus and the consequences of any changes,” Lovell said. “Ebola will occur again, and it’s only through such close monitoring that we will contain it and ultimately eradicate it.”

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