Ebola is mutating, experts say, but how?

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With the lingering mystery over the latest case of Ebola in Dallas, many people have questioned whether the killer virus has become airborne. A pair of local experts weighed in on whether Ebola is “changing its stripes,” so to speak.

“What we’re finding is, is that the virus is mutating, In fact, it’s mutating in humans as the virus spreads from human to human to human much faster than it was when it was just circulating around in the rain forest in the animals there,” said Robert Garry, Ph.D., a Tulane virologist who is also a professor of microbiology.

Dr. Garry returned from West Africa in June where he was already doing work in Sierra Leone pertaining to another hemorrhagic disease, and he began monitoring Ebola and its mutation.

“Some of the things that we did with the samples was to sequence those viruses, in other words, to determine the whole string of nucleotides that those viruses has and then to look at the mutations rates,” said Dr. Garry.

LSU Health Infectious Disease expert Dr. Fred Lopez, M.D., said mutation was expected.

“It is certainly mutating and we know it can mutate, but it’s not mutated to the degree that it can become airborne,” said Dr. Lopez.

It is a question being pondered in the public and by the news media.

According to the Centers for Disease Control diseases that can be transmitted by an airborne route include tuberculosis, measles, chickenpox, and localized or disseminated herpes zoster.

“The airborne droplets are those that are really small typically less than five micrometers and diameter and as a result the organism can be suspended into the air and travel long distances,” stated Dr. Lopez.

Ebola is in the “droplet-borne” category of transmissions.

“Droplets would be like if somebody was coughing, or spitting and little droplets of water came out of their mouth and their lungs, you could spread Ebola that way, but you’d have to be standing very close,” said Dr. Garry.

“Droplets are larger in size, usually greater than 10 micrometers, and diameter and they don’t travel very far and these would be things like pertussis, the whooping cough particle that can cause infection, those are larger and they don’t suspend in the air like the airborne particulates of tuberculosis, for example,” said Lopez.

And while he was in West Africa, Dr. Garry, of course, he was in and out of protective gear, and he said Tuesday that the most critical point is when a person is taking off the gear designed to keep them from contracting Ebola.

“Taking it off is the most dangerous part, okay, I would say that if we’re going to look at any part of the whole process that maybe needs to be rethought it’s the taking it off, because you can the little drop on your sleeve, if you touch it and then touch your eye that could be enough to get infected,” he said.

Garry said a fellow professional with training in the protective gear protocol should be present to make sure all steps are followed, precisely. Garry also believes more training is needed in the U.S.

“There have been mistakes that have been made,” he said.

He said mutations in viruses are complex.

“It is a virus, so it does not have the same kind of proof-reading that a human has, okay, so when we replicate our DNA we have enzymes and special system in place that say, oh, that was a mistake and corrects it, a virus doesn’t have that luxury, so when it replicates, it replicates so fast that it makes mistakes, and there’s no mechanism to correct it,” he said.

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