Today, the Ebola virus spreads only through direct contact with bodily fluids, such as blood and vomit. But some of the nation’s top infectious disease experts worry that this deadly virus could mutate and be transmitted just by a cough or a sneeze. Airborne diseases are spread when droplets of pathogens are expelled into the air due to coughing, sneezing or talking. “It’s the single greatest concern I’ve ever had in my 40-year public health career,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “I can’t imagine anything in my career — and this includes HIV — that would be more devastating to the world than a respiratory transmissible Ebola virus.”
Osterholm and other experts couldn’t think of another virus that has made the transition from non-airborne to airborne in humans. They say the chances are relatively small that Ebola will make that jump. But as the virus spreads, they warned, the likelihood increases. Every time a new person gets Ebola, the virus gets another chance to mutate and develop new capabilities. Osterholm calls it “genetic roulette.”
As of Friday, there have been 4,784 cases of Ebola, with 2,400 deaths, according to the World Health Organization, which says the virus is spreading at a much faster rate now than it was earlier in the outbreak. Ebola is an RNA virus, which means every time it copies itself, it makes one or two mutations. Many of those mutations mean nothing, but some of them might be able to change the way the virus behaves inside the human body.