The Ebola virus, which has killed more than 2,400 people during the ongoing epidemic in West Africa, spreads through contact with bodily fluids. That means you can catch it from infected blood, for example, or if you come in contact with vomit from an Ebola patient.
You can't catch it from breathing in the same air as someone suffering from Ebola — at least you can't right now. But as the virus continues to spread and mutate, could airborne transmission become a concern?
Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, raised that possibility in a New York Times op-ed last week.
"Why are public officials afraid to discuss this?" Osterholm wrote in a piece headlined "What We're Afraid to Say About Ebola." "They don’t want to be accused of screaming 'Fire!' in a crowded theater — as I’m sure some will accuse me of doing. But the risk is real, and until we consider it, the world will not be prepared to do what is necessary to end the epidemic."
When asked about the piece and the possibility of airborne Ebola, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Post on Monday that he wasn't "pooh-poohing" the idea, but that the terrifying scenario probably wouldn't occur — and that officials should focus on more imminent concerns.
"The fact is, historically, it is unlikely to happen," Fauci said. "Not impossible, but unlikely. What is very, very likely is that if we don't do something transformationally bigger than what we're doing now ... this is going to get even more out of control than it is."
.@chriscmooney (2/n) opinions of many virologists IMO. Not scared 2 talk about airborne transmission--just trying to be realistic about risk
— Tara C. Smith (@aetiology) September 12, 2014
But what about if a person is standing next an Ebola patient, and he or she spits while talking? That's something we should worry about, right?
Just forget the hypotheticals, Fauci said.
"It's very difficult for people to separate a hypothetical possibility from a likelihood," Fauci said. "If we got overly concerned over every hypothetical possibility, people would be frightened all the time."
"This is what bothered me more than anything else — and it comes from the [op-ed's] title itself — is this idea that scientists are reluctant to discuss openly something, or are considering it in private," said Condit, a smallpox expert.
"It fosters …" Condit added, before stopping. "Oh, this is so annoying!"
It fosters a public distrust of scientists, Condit continued. And that can sometimes be really dangerous.
It's true that the situation in Africa could change, said Christian Brechot, president of the Pasteur Institute. But it's also true that there's no evidence to show that Ebola has gone airborne. And that means that instead of asking whether medical teams are ready for airborne transmission, Brechot said, we should be asking if they are ready for any scenario.
"We should work all together to prepare, to prepare for anything to happen," Brechot said.
Osterholm was not available for comment Monday.
More than 2,400 Ebola-related deaths have been recorded in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization, with 4,784 probable, confirmed and suspected cases of the virus reported in the Ebola-ravaged region.
Scientists sometimes talk differently than other people, Condit said. They don't like to communicate absolute certainties, and they're used to being wrong. That sometimes conflicts with what the public wants to hear and leads to misunderstandings.
Turning the conversation about Ebola toward whether the virus could be transmitted through the air, he said, would be "a huge distraction from the real problem" of getting care to those who need it.
"It's not true," Condit said. "It's not true that they're all worried. It's not true that they're keeping stuff under wraps. It's just not true."