In Dallas, a single case of Ebola has led to some parents pulling their kids out of school. In the three West African states worst affected by the virus—with more than 7,000 dead—the fear has contributed to the collapse of those countries’ medical systems.
The fear has also led to some pretty bizarre conspiracy theories about Ebola being mysterious bioweapon being responsible for the outbreak. There’s always an audience for these kinds of things.
But really, Ebola wouldn’t make a very good bioweapon.
The virus is far too difficult to produce in a lab in even limited quantities. It’s much less efficient at spreading than smallpox and Anthrax. It’s also not very discreet. Staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital failed to properly diagnose 42-year-old Liberian man Thomas Duncan, resulting in Duncan possibly spreading the virus to others in the Dallas area.
But once doctors discovered the virus, it triggered a massive intervention by the federal government.
That’s not the impression you’d get from the danker basements of the Internet and more than one ethically-challenged newspapers. Last month, the Liberian newspaper Daily Observer published an inflammatory article alleging Western nations created Ebola as a “detestable and devilish” biological weapon against Africans.
Survivalist blogs are full of wild theories that Islamist terrorists have weaponized Ebola, and Louis Farrakhan used the pages of Final Call—the Nation of Islam’s newspaper—to call Ebola a “race-targeting weapon.”
It’s not surprising there’s conspiracy theories about Ebola. The virus is hard to understand. Microorganisms can’t be seen with the naked eye and certainly can’t be reasoned with. They’re also constantly evolving into forms bent on killing us, with only our doctors and our bodies building immunities against them.
The world is scary and random, and conspiracy theories play on our need to impose meaning on things that defy simple or moral explanations.
While Ebola now poses a serious threat to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the history of life on planet Earth has no shortage of lethal viral outbreaks.
To be sure, there’s a grain of truth—like many paranoias—regarding Ebola’s potential use as a bioweapon. Although Ebola has never been used as such, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies the virus as a potential Category A bioweapon along with anthrax, smallpox and plague.
The CDC reserves this category for the deadliest biological agents.
But a useful bioweapon? Not particularly, according to a recent report from CTC Sentinel, West Point’s counter-terrorism newsletter.
“The risk of Ebola as an effective unconventional biological weapon is low,” writes Capt. Stephen Hummel, the report’s author and a chemistry instructor at West Point. “The aspects of the virus that support its classification as a potential bioweapon by the CDC are also the same factors that limit its capabilities as a functional bioweapon.”
Potentially, Ebola is fairly easy to weaponize. You simply get infected with Ebola and attempt to spread it others. But that’s not very functional or efficient at causing much damage. “It would not pose a mass casualty threat,” Hummel writes.
It’s also hard to extract—requiring an advanced lab to extract. Ebola can’t survive outside of its host or long, and can’t survive freezing if a terrorist wanted to store large amounts of it. The most efficient way of spreading it would be to infect yourself.
“The virus that the terrorist would hope to spread to others would be concurrently killing its host,” Hummel adds. “Consequently, it would be a race between contagion of others and the death of the terrorist.”
Many conspiracy theories point to a study conducted by the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases as proof the Ebola outbreak is a artifically-created airborne bioweapon. During the 1995 study, researchers forced rhesus monkeys to inhale Ebola concentrated in droplets sprayed directly into their nose and mouth.
Unfortunately for the monkeys, the test showed that Ebola can travel in an aerosol form. But to infect humans, you would have to spray a lot of Ebola. Or dozens of pounds of it to infect people within a kilometer. That’s a mind-bogglingly huge amount of a virus for what’s likely poor results. Producing that much would take a major scientific and industrial effort.
The Soviet Union even tried making an Ebola weapon in the 1970s as part of its Vector biological weapons program. No known Ebola weapon ever came out of the effort. But it did cause the death of a Russian scientist who accidentally contracted the virus.
“The Soviet Union spent billions of dollars and decades working to weaponize Ebola, to little avail,” Hummel writes. “Technology, expertise, and vast amounts of money are the three necessary components to weaponizing Ebola that a terrorist organization simply does not possess.”
There’s a reason why Anthrax—not Ebola—is the bioweapon of choice. It’s easy to spread and produce, and it survives in powder form.
But the greatest danger from an Ebola bioweapon is the fear that it causes.
The fear of infection and strain on the health infrastructure in the West African nations means people are actually dying at higher rates from ordinary diseases. Far more people have likely died from preventable malaria, diarrhea and during childbirth than from Ebola, because they’ve avoided hospitals—and because of the loss of doctors and nurses.
Microorganisms are insidious. They get inside you without you knowing, and kill you from the inside out. It’s scary, even if your odds of becoming infected are astronomically low.
The virus acting on its own—without humans intentionally spreading it—is terrifying enough. Conspiracy theories about Ebola bioweapons play on those fears, and people’s ignorance.