Both President Obama and his top infectious disease experts tried to calm Americans’ fears about Ebola this week by saying the current outbreak cannot be transmitted through the air. But less than 30 miles from where top government officials made their declarations in Washington, scientists a quarter century ago did in fact prove that an Ebola strain contained to monkeys could spread airborne.
The 1989 episode at the suburban Reston, Virginia, monkey research facility — made famous by Hollywood movie “Hot Zone” — along with additional research by a scientist who helped fight the Reston outbreak and then went to Africa to treat a later Ebola outbreak in humans — leaves some of the nation’s top disease experts willing to consider that the Ebola virus could mutate or go airborne.
“We can never say never, but I just don’t think the risk is very high,” said Thomas Geisbert, a professor at the University of Texas at Galveston who co-discovered the Reston strain of Ebola.
There’s no evidence of airborne transmission in today’s cases, although a team supervisor for the Reston outbreak, Dr. C.J. Peters, challenged declarations by federal scientists designed to reassure the public at a fearful time.