Yesterday evening I attended a talk on ebola at the Pembroke College Stokes Society, partly because I find it shameful how little I know about this t(r)opical disease and partly because I was anxious to see whether the Society would continue to thrive this year. Peter Walsh explained his theory on the mechanism of spread of ebola, both in general and during the current outbreak in West Africa, in the crowded Nihon room in college. His main hypothesis (Walsh et al. (2005)) is that the virus (the Zaire strain specifically) is spreading in a wave-like trajectory and in a very predictable manner, at approximately 50 km per year. He said he could have predicted outbreaks with high accuracy, and that the current epidemic could have been prevented if precautionary measures had been taken. These measures would have included, among other things, educating people who live in the affected regions about the dangers of bushmeat.
In the second part of the talk Walsh explained strategies for immunising gorillas and chimpanzees: by vaccinating these apes with ebola virus-like particles (non-infectious protein fragments of ebola virus) one could try to build up herd immunity against the disease. However, it is currently impossible/forbidden to vaccinate wild apes due to various restrictions. Walsh is an ardent advocate of wildlife conservation, ape conservation in particular, because he believes that it will necessarily also have a positive impact on public health.
The talk was highly entertaining, if somewhat disheartening: it was littered with obscenities and characterised by levels of bitterness only attainable to scientists whose best theories and ideas have been cast aside by policy makers and investors. You can imagine what it was like if I tell you that Peter Walsh published an article entitled “A rant on infectious disease and ape research priorities” in 2008.
For anyone interested in ebola, Addgene has compiled additional scientific resources here.
Walsh PD, Biek R, Real LA (2005) Wave-like spread of Ebola Zaire. Plos Biology 3: 1946-1953
Walsh PD (2008) A rant on infectious disease and ape research priorities. American Journal of Primatology 70: 719-721