The recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has been alternately characterized as barely constituting a global threat and as poised to become the “poor man’s atomic bomb,” ripe for exploitation by terrorists. In order to better assess the situation given this conflicting discourse, analysts must put information into perspective by examining how Ebola spreads naturally in order to determine how well the virus is suited for potential use as a biological weapon.
Ebola, along with other hemorrhagic fevers, is defined as a class A bioterrorism agent, the category of pathogens that pose the highest risk to international security. These agents “can be easily disseminated from person to person, result in high mortality rates, have the potential to cause public panic and social disruption, and require special preparedness actions.” In order to accurately assess Ebola’s potential use as a weapon, a number of criteria must be examined, including ease of diagnosis, pathogenicity, virulence, availability, incubation period, transmissibility, vectors of transmission, and lethality. Also important are the levels of fear and societal disruption the disease might cause, how effective the agent remains when removed from its natural environment, and the reasons why a terrorist might choose this agent over another weapon.
At present, scientists lack sufficient tools to rapidly identify cases of infection. Citing concern over Ebola’s possible use as a weapon, the U.S. National Institutes of Health has awarded almost $3 million to a laboratory in Colorado to engineer a fast diagnostic test for the virus. The ability to diagnose infections almost instantaneously would go a long way to halt the natural spread of the disease as well as limit its potential effectiveness in weaponized form. Unfortunately, however, bringing such efforts to fruition will take both time and capital.
To make matters worse, Ebola has a high degree of pathogenicity, is readily available, and is difficult to treat. Just one to ten virions from an Ebola patient’s serum or blood are enough to infect another individual. Given the scope of the current outbreak, it would not be difficult to obtain a sample of the virus. Currently, no vaccinations or proven treatments for Ebola exist; supportive care is the best that can be offered to patients. The disease is also potently lethal: historically, large outbreaks (affecting over 100 individuals) have had mortality rates ranging between 25 percent up to as much as 90 percent of those infected.
Ebola travels from person to person primarily through contact with bodily fluids, although some evidence suggests that the virus may have limited transmission through aerosol droplets. This means that, while the virus can ride on the droplets of fluid expelled by a victim’s coughing, it cannot travel through the air on its own. Because symptoms often include aggressive coughing, vomiting, and bleeding, however, there is ample opportunity for patients to contaminate their environment. The virus can survive in liquid or dried material for several days at room temperature, and can remain infective indefinitely when kept at very cold temperatures or when preserved through lyophilization (freeze drying). This particular quality would greatly facilitate efforts to weaponize the virus. Moreover, because Ebola is so infectious, even an imperfect delivery mechanism would be effective enough to cause widespread terror. The ensuing degree of disruption- even if very few casualties were to result- would be astronomical for two reasons. First, the dramatic and gruesome nature of the disease’s symptoms would generate widespread terror. Secondly, if terrorists were to successfully stabilize the virus sufficiently to survive the weaponization and deployment processes, contracting Ebola would no longer require direct contact with people exhibiting symptoms. In such a scenario, populations worldwide could justifiably fear contracting the disease from anywhere.
Thankfully, silver linings do exist. First, Ebola is unlikely to be transmitted during the virus’s incubation period. Patients who do not exhibit symptoms have not been shown to be able to infect other individuals (although they may remain infectious for several weeks after recovery). Thus, while Ebola remains easy to catch through direct contact with the bodily fluids of a symptomatic individual, the disease is far less dangerous than if asymptomatic individuals could transmit it as well—as is the case with other breeds of virus, including influenza. This fact provides a huge advantage to those trying to control the spread of an outbreak, and thus a marked disadvantage for potential terrorists in search of a bioweapon capable of spreading unnoticed through a population.
Second, the same heightened infectivity that makes Ebola such an efficient killer also makes it exceedingly hard to work with, especially for the purposes of weaponization. Growing the virus inside a living host is a dangerous enough proposition in its own right, but the purification, freeze-drying, and milling processes required to prepare the virus for dispersion are virtually impossible to accomplish without the use of a sophisticated biosafety level -4 laboratory. Only forty-two such laboratories equipped to work with the Evola virus safely exist in the world, and all remain under direct government oversight. Even if terrorists managed to gain access to a relatively adequate (and very expensive) facility in which they might be able to successfully handle Ebola samples in blood, it would be virtually impossible to weaponize the virus for aerosol dispersion without contracting the disease. Despite its ranking as a Class A agent, Ebola is so dangerous to work with that it is, to a large extent, self-protecting. Furthermore, depending on the intent of the terrorists trying to weaponize Ebola, it could be conceptually disadvantageous to create an outbreak that does not discriminate between different groups of people, a fact that could place the group’s own constituent populations at risk.
Finally, Ebola research has garnered an unprecedented amount of international attention and funding in recent months, which has increased the chances of finding a cure. A promising experimental drug called ZMapp has just been approved for use to help fight the outbreak and has indicated possible success treating the virus in two infected Americans airlifted from Liberia in August. If any of the current efforts to combat the disease prove successful as treatments or measures of prevention, Ebola’s potential attractiveness as a bioterrorism agent will decrease immediately. Fundamentally, terrorists aim to get the most bang for their buck. Ebola would be difficult, dangerous, and expensive to grow in sufficient quantities, isolate, freeze-dry, mill, and weaponize without catching the virus itself. Due to these obstacles, it is highly unlikely that terrorists will pursue Ebola’s weaponization.
Alexandra Peters is a GCSP Research Officer in the Geopolitics and Global Futures Programme.