Researcher says airborne Ebola transmission is not an impossibility

The idea of the Ebola virus becoming airborne is not far-fetched and its ability to enter cells that line the trachea and lungs has been shown under controlled laboratory conditions, a Purdue University virus expert says.

David Sanders, an associate professor of biological sciences who has studied the Zaire strain of Ebola virus that is responsible for the current outbreak in West Africa, says the possibility of the virus becoming airborne should not be discounted.

“It is not unprecedented for a virus to change its mode of transmission,” he says. “Ebola does share some of the characteristics of airborne viruses like influenza, and we should not disregard the possibility of it evolving into something that could be transmitted in this way.”

A research team led by Sanders and collaborators from the University of Iowa established that the Zaire strain of Ebola virus could enter the epithelial cells that line the human airway in a paper published in the Journal of Virology in 2003. The experiment used a pseudotyped virus, which was built with the Ebola virus envelope proteins, or outer shell. The inside of the virus was that of a retrovirus to prevent replication of the Ebola virus and to more easily separate the functions of the outer and inner portions of the virus, he said.

The death toll from the current Ebola outbreak continues to rise. More than 2,200 deaths have been attributed to the virus and there are 4,269 probable, confirmed and suspected cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization.