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Pentagon Request Shows Scant Science Supports White House’s Ebola Assurances

The Defense Department is seeking research that shows federal public-health officials and the broader medical community have a limited understanding of the Ebola virus, despite their assurances that the public should not panic about the deadly disease. On Oct. 24, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, charged by the Pentagon to counter weapons of mass destruction, ...

John Moore, Getty Images News
John Moore, Getty Images News

The Defense Department is seeking research that shows federal public-health officials and the broader medical community have a limited understanding of the Ebola virus, despite their assurances that the public should not panic about the deadly disease.

On Oct. 24, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, charged by the Pentagon to counter weapons of mass destruction, began the formal process of paying someone to determine whether the virus can be transmitted through the air or live outside of the body for an extended period.

"While current science indicates the disease can only be transmitted by contact with contaminated body fluids, it remains unclear if other transmission modes are feasible," the proposal read in a section labeled "Ebola Characterization." "Filoviruses are able to infect via the respiratory route and are lethal at very low doses in experimental animal models, however the infectious dose is unknown. There is minimal information on how well filoviruses survive within aerosolized particles, and in certain media like the biofilm of sewage systems."

The document, known officially as a "request for proposal," continues: "Preliminary studies indicate that Ebola is aerostable in an enclosed controlled system in the dark and can survive for long periods in different liquid media and can also be recovered from plastic and glass surfaces at low temperatures for over 3 weeks."

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency did not immediately comment on the proposal.

The research request comes two weeks after Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey worried that the Ebola virus could be transmitted through the air.

"If you bring two doctors who happen to have that specialty into a room, one will say, ‘No, it will never become airborne, but it could mutate so it would be harder to discover,’" Dempsey mused in an Oct. 15 interview with CNN. "Another doctor will say, ‘If it continues to mutate at the rate it’s mutating, and we go from 20,000 infected to 100,000, the population might allow it to mutate and become airborne; and then it will be a serious problem.’

"I don’t know who is right," the general added. "I don’t want to take that chance."

The Pentagon’s search for more information does not mean that the outbreak underway in West Africa can spread like the common cold. There are five known strains of the virus. Only one — known as the Reston strain — can be transmitted through the air. And it cannot infect humans (it spread among monkeys in Reston, Virginia, in 1989).

However, public-health experts agree that more research is necessary. Academic work on Ebola is scant. Therefore, to stem future outbreaks, they need a better understanding of the disease.

"There are a lot of potential research needs in regards to the Ebola virus, especially in regards to transmission," said Dan Hanfling, a clinical professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University who lectures on Ebola safety. "Looking at routes of transmission remains important. There are issues about viability of the virus outside the body. We need to continue to look at issues related to incubation."

Eden Wells, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Michigan, added that requests such as this are not unusual.

"This has been around as long as we’ve been worried about bioterrorism," she told Foreign Policy. "We’ve always been worried that this is something that could become airborne if it was manipulated."

"There hasn’t been a whole lot of the disease. It has been difficult to study the virus. It’s a very pathogenic virus and it’s not the easiest to conduct studies on," Wells added.

Pieter Devries, the Liberia country director for Global Communities and chief of party for USAID’s Improved Water Sanitation and Hygiene program, has been fighting Ebola in West Africa for months. He said that although the epidemic that has claimed approximately 5,000 lives so far is tragic, it is an opportunity to learn more about the disease and how it spreads to better protect people from it.

"There are a lot of lessons learned and there’s a lot of work to be done," he said. "There are a lot of areas that are beginning to be impacted by the outbreak."

John Hudson contributed to this report. 

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