Ebola is no deadlier than it was 40 years ago meaning current methods to treat the virus should be able to contain future outbreaks, scientists at the University of Manchester have claimed.
A team at the university has used cutting-edge computer analysis to track the virus in the recent outbreak and have been surprised by some of the results.
Data gathered shows that while a high number of genetic changes have been observed and recorded in the viral infection, it has not changed at a functional level to become more or less potent.
Findings published in the journal Virology, highlighted that death toll during the current breakout, where fatality figures are nearly 10,500, is not down to mutations making the virus more virulent.
Scientists from the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences explained that by using data from every outbreak since 1976, they were able to see what changes there had been in the ribonucleic acid (RNA) of the virus and predict the consequences of those changes using specially developed tools.
Professor Simon Lovell, a professor of molecular biology at the university, said: “As the epidemic has been going on, we looked for mutations where you could see the virus getting better or worse and it turns out it looked like it was neither — the mutations are neutral.
“There are several ramifications and one is that it’s not getting more deadlier which is great news for people in the UK and the developed world.
“It also means that it gives an indication for the right way to handle things which is actually what people have been doing; to keep track of people’s treatment and isolate them to stop the spreading.”
Though there have been several recorded outbreaks of the virus throughout the years, Professor Lovell explained why the 2014 outbreak saw a record number of fatalities, pinning it down to global integration.
“It has been more or less the same since it was isolated in 1976 and there have been outbreaks that have been occurring again and again meaning that it does not have to change to pass through humans,” he said.
“There was a big mystery as to why it was so bad this time around with over 10,000 people dead compared to a few hundred previously.
“That’s not because the virus is changing that’s because of changes in the human population.
“Populations have increased, people travel more, people have been on incursions into jungle areas where people are coming into contact with bats which we think are the animal reservoir.”
Professor David Robertson said the findings can be seen as a positive step in fighting the virus.
He said: “The fact that Ebola isn’t changing in a way that effects the virulence of the disease means that vaccines and treatments developed during this current outbreak have a very high chance of being effective against future outbreaks.
“It also means that methods to successfully tackle the virus should work again, so hopefully in the future an outbreak can be stopped from spreading at a much earlier stage.”
The group used a computational approach developed by PhD student Abayomi Olabode, which was used to analysis and highlight the changes in HIV-1 in the context of protein structure.
However when the approach was used to study Ebola, they didn’t notice the similar changes they were expecting to see.
Professor Robertson described the computer-based approach as an essential tool in the battle against the illness.
He said: “We were able to do this research quickly and whilst the Ebola outbreak was still ongoing. The data generated in 2014 was all freely available and our analysis technique is a safe way to study the virus without unnecessary exposure.
“This type of study could be used on future outbreaks to analyze what is happening in real time within the virus.
“This level of surveillance will only become more essential in the fight against contagious illness as we live in an increasingly globally connected society.”
The research team also stressed that, counter-intuitively, analysis is needed to identify when a virus becomes less potent because individuals could potentially infect more people if they did not develop into severe illness.
Ebola’s deadly nature means the symptoms can be identified at an early stage and those who had been in contact with a patient during the infectious stage readily identified by contact tracing.
Once the virus becomes less deadly, it may take longer to spot those symptoms, if they can be spotted at all, or for the person to become ill, increasing the chance of spreading the virus.
Professor Tony Redmond from the University’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute who helped coordinate the NHS response to Ebola in West Africa said: “Like any medical response, the response to Ebola must be supported by science.
“These are very important findings and emphasise that the spread of the virus in this outbreak owed as much to factors within the human community than within the virus itself.”
Picture courtesy of the European Commission, with thanks.