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Ebola: The next weapon of mass destruction?

Seema Sengupta

Ever since the return of the deadly Ebola -- a disease that snuffs out human life in the most gruesome manner -- in parts of Africa last February, the world has witnessed two extreme reactions in the form of a lackadaisical initial response to the pressing of panic button thereafter.

Though the World Health Organization (WHO) has called this outbreak "the most challenging ever" that requires a concerted global response, the agency is accused of failing to respond adequately. Indeed, one needs to be extremely cautious because with every infection the Ebola virus gets a better chance to adapt to human bodies. In fact, the current Ebola outbreak is said to be four times as large as the previous largest attack recorded anywhere on globe.

Intriguingly, there have been no previously recorded cases of Ebola attack in the presently affected zone of West Africa. The last known Ebola outbreak was in Central Africa where the virus was thought to be carried by fruit bats. The same species of bats are said to be responsible for the new invasion of the deadly virus in western Africa. Epidemiologists fear, the current magnitude of the outbreak will make Ebola more difficult to control, with effective contact tracing -- necessary for quarantining infected individuals -- becoming virtually impossible.

Experts argue that there are primarily two reasons behind the comparative vastness of the present outbreak. Firstly, urbanization has increased population size and mobility thus making it easy for the virus to spread. Unlike rural areas, cities provide more chances to the virus to spread and the rapid urbanization in Africa may invite Ebola to strike again and again. Secondly, the loss of forest cover and alteration in its ecosystem due to high urban growth rate (the highest in the world) forces virus-carriers like fruit bats to move to new locations. But then, it might not be an open-and-shut case, as it appears to be. Some strategic experts are convinced that Ebola is being readied as the next weapon of mass destruction. A dangerous strain of this filamentous single-stranded RNA virus was allegedly developed in an Israeli experimental laboratory secretly. The Biological Research Institute at the nondescript town of Nes Tziona, south of Tel Aviv, is said to be handling such clandestine research program on biological and chemical weapons for quite some time now.

Victor Ostrovsky, an ex-Mossad official has fortunately spilled the beans in his book "The Other Side of Deception." Ostrovsky has confirmed that top Israeli epidemiologists are diligently engaged in developing various "doomsday machines" in the secret facility at Nes Tziona under government patronage. Worst still, as per Ostrovsky's revelation, captured Palestinians were used as human guinea pigs to fine-tune the efficacy of the lethal weapons. Given such a background, is it at all improbable for the aggressive Israeli's to surreptitiously infect live hosts in Africa (having genetic affinity with Arab population) with deadly Ebola strains prepared in vitro?

Let us not forget that Tel Aviv is accused of trying to develop ethnically targeted biological weapons that would only harm Arabs. Israeli scientists have apparently not given up on their endeavor to engineer fatal microorganisms that attack only those bearing distinctive genes found in Arab and a section of African population.

The process to weaponize a biological agent like Ebola might be complex and multi-staged but not impossible for non-state actors to achieve. Some bioterrorism experts believe the idea of harvesting Ebola, as a biological weapon of mass destruction is unrealistic especially because the transmission of virus from one host to another is complex. Moreover, the complete replicative cycle of the virus remains un-decoded. Hence isolating the virus and maximizing its potential impact as a bio-terror agent is almost negligible, argues those who negates the idea of non-state actors exploiting the deadliness of Ebola to their advantage.

However, despite the complexity of enriching a biological agent consisting of Ebola strains outside the supervisory purview of nation States, the possibility of an Ebola host volunteering as a suicide agent to create havoc by way of initiating a chain of infection cannot be ruled out altogether. The claim of suboptimal climatic conditions coming in the way of the Ebola virus causing great damage in highly developed urban centers does not hold ground because the molecular structure of the Ebola virus is changing fast and becoming more virulent. The intensity of the present outbreak indicates that the coded proteins may have undergone some metamorphosis to attain the capability of generating unprecedented human pandemic. Unfortunately, Ebola is being seen as just another RNA virus residing quietly in some species of wildlife that spill over occasionally to kill mercilessly, with hot contaminated blood, bile and feces oozing out of the infected human body continuously.

But is it just a coincidence that the virus appeared on the face of earth in the same year when "Smallpox" was eradicated? Smallpox virus, after all, was accepted by experts as a potent bio-terrorism agent because of its contagious nature. Since, WHO has made it impossible for anybody to get hold of Smallpox virus by concentrating all residual samples in two high security laboratories after complete eradication of the disease, who knows Ebola might just be a replacement? According to experts, a spray containing Ebola virus can indeed be made in small camouflaged laboratories for causing havoc. This is a warning sign for countries like India, where unsecured yet advanced biomedical research facilities may turn into potential source of biological agents.

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Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.

Email: [emailprotected] //

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:Sep 1, 2014
Words:930
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