What can we learn from Ebola outbreak?

It appears that Ebola 2014 outbreak is the first large-scale outbreak of a lethal virus in living memory. No other viral outbreaks, such as SARS, H5 or H7 Flu, MERS can come close.

While Ebola 2014 brought suffering and fear, it also brings an opportunity to create a scientific breakthrough in understanding and management of highly virulent infections.

Death rate for Ebola 2014 is estimated to range from 50% to 75%, so far. It is highly lethal. Even Black death in 14th century had on average 30% death rate (1 out of 3). For comparison, during Flu pandemic of 1918 around 50 million people died that represented ~ 2% of total world population in 1918 (death rate ranged from 2.5% to 10%). So, it is obvious Ebola is more lethal.

In general very few pathogens are so lethal to the host. Sometimes it is not even clear whether high death rate has to do with the direct pathogen effect on the host or the host’s own over-reaction to the pathogen.

Laboratory animals are not always suitable to study deadly viruses and not just because mouse immune system is not the same as human’s immune system. One big problem with mouse models that limit their use for translational medicine has to do with history of laboratory mice. All laboratory mouse strains are basically inbred strains, each strain carrying specific and unique immune genes called class I and class II (MHC in mice and HLA in humans). Actually mouse strain development itself was only possible because of MHC genes (based on skin graft rejection or antibody response).

However, studies derived from such inbred laboratory mice prevents its usefulness for human research since humans are outbred species.

Natural viral outbreak, such as Ebola 2014 with 10,000 people infected so far, is an unique opportunity for scientists to use all the experimental advances at hand to dissect the viral biology and host-pathogen interaction. This is literally one in a century opportunity (1918 – 2014) but with so much more knowledge and tools available.

posted by David Usharauli

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