How Was the Ebola Virus Discovered?

Andrei Tapalaga

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Microscopic view of the Ebola virus (Source: CDC)

During the late 20th century as well as most of the 21st century, our world has been threatened by pandemics before even the appearance of Covid-19. There have been many outbreaks of Ebola in the last 40 years, but most of them took place in third world countries, specifically in Africa, due to the lack of medical resources.

Similarities and differences between Ebola and Covid-19

The virus has a different manifestation from Covid-19 which actually makes it more deadly. The symptoms are quite different, apart from muscle aches and stomach pains, Ebola starts its attack by destroying the immune cells within the bloodstream of the infected person. This is done by blocking the release of interferon, a protein created by our immune system in order to fight viruses and bacterias.

Once the immune system becomes pretty much obsolete, the virus attacks the liver and spleen making these vital organs shut down and eventually kill the infected. A big difference between Ebola and Covid-19 is that the latter can actually be treated (not cured yet) with antibiotics or other antiviral drugs, whilst Ebola can be very difficult to treat because even the strongest antibiotics seem to have little effectiveness towards combating the virus.

What is very surprising about the appearance of Ebola is that it is said to have also appeared due to bats! Bats are believed to be the hosts of Ebola, whilst the virus doesn’t interfere with their lives, it affects humans.

The discovery of Ebola

The first signs of Ebola appeared in the 1970s in a place called Ziar but now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, people didn’t understand why some of the inhabitants were suddenly dropping dead one after another, especially in a time where the medicine was almost non-existent in third-world countries.

In 1976 the Institute of Tropical Medicine from Belgium received a strange package containing a thermos mug. At that time, one of the researchers working there was Peter Piot, a 27-year old that had just graduated with his diploma in microbiology. Piot opened the thermos and to its surprise, it did not contain coffee, but blood samples and a note.

The note was from a Belgian doctor that had settled in Congo, one of her friends who was abroad for some charity work got really sick and the doctor was not able to define a prognostic as her symptoms were very strange. The problem was that one of the recipients containing the blood samples had broken and this thermos mug was transported via public airlines.

Piot and the rest of his team analyzed the blood samples to discover a huge worm under the microscope, the Ebola virus.

As this was something new, the scientists associated it with the Marburg virus, a similar-looking virus that provoked a small epidemic in 1967 within Frankfurt, Germany. The samples were sent to other microbiology institutions around the world and none of them confirmed that the virus within the blood samples was Marburg, meaning that he was something different.

Weeks later, Piot got a letter from the sender of the thermos with the blood samples to say that her friend had passed away without knowing the exact cause. The letter also mentioned that many other people within the same village portrayed similar symptoms to her deceased friend.

Piot being skeptical that this could only be the beginning of a new epidemic and possible pandemic he decided to take the risk and go visit the village. Accompanied by his team, they managed to get a plane with the help of the dictator from Mobutu.

Although everyone else was frightened, Piot said that he wasn’t as he wanted to stop this new virus from spreading. It is people such as Piot who understand perfectly how deadly a virus can be, yet have the courage to throw themselves in the middle of the field that made a difference throughout history when it comes to combating these biological disasters.

Upon reaching the village, there were already signs put up by the locals warning those who enter that they could die, showing Piot and his team just how bad the situation was. The scientists first spoke with a group of Catholics who immigrated from Central Europe and saw how the virus developed within the village.

Combating the virus

Piot slowly understood how the virus was transmitted. Due to the lack of medical supplies, many people would use the same needle on different patients to administrate medication. Secondly, it appeared that the virus could still be contagious even after the infected had died, those who touched the corpse of the infected, thinking that the virus would have died with the organism, were also infected.

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Peter Piot back in Yambuku village after 38 years (2014) (Source: BBC)

ealth Organization (WHO) only remained an epidemic within Africa, although it was close to becoming a pandemic if the WHO would have not intervened so quickly.

Africa is still facing a major problem with the Ebola virus despite their exhausting efforts to put a stop to the virus. The vaccine became available in 2016 and it has been confirmed by CDC that the VSV-EBOV vaccine has a 95% to 100% effectiveness against the Ebola virus. Despite this, the virus has seen some small-scale mutations over the years which made the vaccine less effective.

The main theory behind the appearance of the Ebola virus still remains the bat, one of the same theories that apply to the origin of the Covid-19 virus.

Coincidence?

Everyone is their own judge here, but defying the origin of a virus is the first and most vital step at stopping it, no matter what virus we are talking about.

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