Ebola Airborne: It Can’t Happen

That image of this long virus that causes death in over half the people it infects – and now the major worry: what happens if this virus mutates so that it would become airborne. Here is the good news: it cannot happen.

The virus by nature is a rather long, and unstable protein shell surrounded by RNA. It is highly primative in nature- which makes it efficient. When it infects someone the body reacts to Ebola by trying to isolate it. The virus infects cells of the immune system, called macrophages, it also infects more primitive cells that line the blood vessels. The virus takes over the machinery of the cell and makes that cell into a virus replicating factory. The cell replicates virus after virus until the cell is so full that the virus ruptures into the blood stream.

These virus particles are a foreign protein and the protein particles are captured by the proteins in the blood – in a fibrin matrix. Essentially the blood begins to clot from the virus particle. Some of those particles form crystals – which are called “bricks.” Those crystals are a combination of blood clot factors and lots of virus particles. This entire process sets off a cascade of clotting in the body’s attempt to isolate the virus. There is a limited number of clotting factors that can be used up and then the patient begins to bleed out of anywhere there is a small cut – even a small ulceration in the gut. As more virus is produced, more cells turned into virus factories that rupture into the blood stream – more clotting factors used up to isolate it, and more bleeding happens.

Patients with Ebola bleed everywhere- they have fevers, diarrhea, vomiting, and bleeding from almost every bruise. It is a horrific death. But all those body fluids- especially the blood- contains lots of virus particles.

Those bricks contain lots of Ebola and it only takes 5-10 of those virus particles to become infected. When a person becomes ill those bricks are the vehicle to infect a person. That blood can come out of the lungs, the blood that happens when a patient with Ebola vomits, out of bleeding from under the skin, or blood in urine, or blood in diarrhea.

When people become sick with Ebola they become very sick, very quickly. When they are contagious they are very sick – not just the sneeze on an airplane.

That is how Ebola is transmitted. But if that brick particle isn’t in blood the proteins break down within seconds and the virus is not able to function.

The virus particle is, by virus standards, a large protein particle that surrounds the DNA. When exposed to air the particle breaks down and the RNY is quickly inactivated by native RNAase enzymes that are present everywhere.

So when someone talks about the virus mutating to where it can be transmitted by air- it simply cannot happen. Why? Because the protein particle surrounding the RNA of Ebola must be in a salt water solution or it breaks down and can no longer infect. Could that change- no.

Influenza is airborne – it can survive for hours when the particle is dry – meaning if someone sneezes on a surface it will be present there and able to cause an infection. When influenza mutates it is the protein core that mutates so that the protein that presents to the immune system is different- meaning the vaccine will not work as well.

Media will sensationalize airborne, misquote scientists, but the physics of the Ebola protein particle is clear: it cannot survive out of the wet environment.

Check your reading glasses – do you see fingerprints? Do you remember how they got there? That is how that wet particle can get into your body – that is how you take off a protected suit improperly and with a tiny wet particle have enough virus to infect. It won’t happen when someone sneezes on you.

So chill out. Get a flu vaccine.

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit www.terrysimpson.com.

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Latest Comments

  1. Mrs_Snoopington says:

    Doctor you are splitting hairs to a public untrained in minutiae. Ebola virus is not suspended in the air. True. However…read this from the
    CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/transmission/qas.html

    Can Ebola spread by coughing? By sneezing?

    Unlike respiratory illnesses like measles or chickenpox, which can be transmitted by virus
    particles that remain suspended in the air after an infected person
    coughs or sneezes, Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with body
    fluids of a person who has symptoms of Ebola disease. Although coughing
    and sneezing are not common symptoms of Ebola, if a symptomatic patient
    with Ebola coughs or sneezes on someone, and saliva or mucus come into
    contact with that person’s eyes, nose or mouth, these fluids may
    transmit the disease.

  2. Dr. Terry Simpson says:

    Let me clarify that with you: Ebola is transmitted when it is in the hemorrhagic stage – so, if someone is coughing and they cough up blood – and that blood gets into another person’s open membranes- it can cause infection. Sneezing- which is typically a reaction of other viruses, and no Ebola – unless there is blood – does not cause it. When patients with Ebola get to the hemorrhagic stage they are quite ill, and not just “suffering the sniffles.”
    So- in theory can this happen – yes.
    Has it ever been recorded to have happened with Ebola – no.

  3. WHAT? says:

    It’s a blood borne disease. The person would have to be very sick to have the virus in saliva or mucous, the number of viruses would be very small, and the contact with mucous membranes would have to be direct or nearly direct (not that easy to do) and the the membranes you mention have remarkable built in defenses to keep foreign matter out of the body- The mucous, saliva and eyes have a constant flow of liquid washing things away. Additionally, the mouth in particular can be quite hostile, full of enzymes. The odds of infection this way would be very very small. The Doctor’s claims are not “splitting hairs.” The articles at the CDC take great pains to track as many cases of transmission as possible, and there is no evidence of transmission by air to any human.

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