Ebola 'could become airborne' in nightmare scenario, UN mission chief warns

Virus has more chance of mutating the longer it moves around human hosts

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The Independent Online

There is a chance the Ebola virus could become airborne if the current outbreak is not contained fast enough, the chief of the UN’s Ebola mission has warned.

Anthony Banbury, the Secretary General’s Special Representative, told The Telegraph said workers are facing a race against time to bring the rapid spread under control in case the virus mutates.

“The longer it moves around in human hosts in the virulent melting pot that is West Africa, the more chances increase that it could mutate,” he said. “It is a nightmare scenario [that it could become airborne], and unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out.”

His warning comes as the first person was diagnosed with Ebola on US soil on Tuesday evening. An international conference organised by the UK and Sierra Leone governments began on Thursday to discuss the global response to the outbreak. 

The current outbreak has infected more than 7,100 people and killed more than 3,300 according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Experts say the disease will continue to spread rapidly unless at least 70 per cent of people who are infected are isolated and prevented from infecting other people.

Dozens of Ebola treatment centres have been promised, but they could take weeks or even months to go up.

However, Ebola experts have cautioned that while the chance of the virus actually going airborne is possible, but stressed the chance of this actually occurring remains extremely low.  

Dr Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at the University of Reading, told The Independent: "Essentially, the chances of it actually happening are highly unlikely – we haven’t seen evidence that human Ebola has ever done this, and that’s good sign considering we’ve had human Ebola outbreaks over the past 38 years. But anything is possible in biology."

Ahead of the conference, Save the Children warned five people are being infected with the deadly Ebola virus every hour in Sierra Leone, one of the worst hit areas.

Mr Banbury described the crisis as the worst he has seen since during his time working for the UN.

He said: “We have never seen anything like it. In a career working in these kinds of situations, wars, natural disasters – I have never seen anything as serious or dangerous or high risk as this one. I’ve heard other people saying this as well, senior figures who are not being alarmist.

“Behind closed doors, they are saying they have never seen anything as bad.

“There is a limited window of opportunity. We need to hit it and we need to hit it hard. We haven’t done that but we are doing it now."