Life as an Extreme Sport

Know Your Species: SUDV vs. EBOV

Last night, it was confirmed that at least some of the hemorrhagic deaths in a remote area of the Democratic Republic of Congo are from an ebolavirus—but it looks like it’s species Sudan ebolavirus (SUDV), rather than the one ravaging Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, and trying to get a foothold in Nigeria: species Zaire ebolavirus (EBOV). Technically, EBOV is the only member virus within the species Zaire ebolavirus, but let’s keep it simple. …simpler.

In other words, while the two outbreaks involve members of the same family (Filoviridae) and the same genus (Ebolavirus), they are not the same species.

It might help to think about cats.Ian Mackay uses cars, and goes into much more detail. But frankly, it’s the internet. Cats are the obvious go-to. Like these guys:

While these cats are both members of the same family (Felidae) and the same genus (Felis), their species are different. In fact, black-footed cats and the common domestic house cat look similar enough that it’s often hard to tell them apart without either being an expert or getting a genetic test.

Which is pretty much how it works with SUDV and EBOV, too.

So keep that in mind when people start sky-is-falling about Africa: there are currently two species of the genus Ebolavirus in (probable) outbreak, and there is no known link between the two. And, for what it’s worth, this isn’t the first time both SUDV and EBOV have occurred at the same time. As a matter of fact, the very first known outbreak of both overlapped.More than one person, myself included, has wondered if we might be seeing some sort of weather- or animal migration-related pattern emerging.

Paternalism, Procedure, Precedent: The Ethics of Using Unproven Therapies in an Ebola Outbreak

The WHO medical ethics panel convened Monday to discuss the ethics of using experimental treatments for Ebola in West African nations affected by the disease. I am relieved to note that this morning they released their unanimous recommendation: “it is ethical to offer unproven interventions with as yet unknown efficacy and adverse effects, as potential treatment or prevention.” WHOsOnFirstThere are, of course, the common caveats about ethical criteria guiding the interventions, but ultimately the recommendation has saved me from a tortured “WHO’s on first”-style commentary.1 I’m sure we all appreciate that.

But just because the WHO recommendation follows what I’ve been arguing for the last 10-odd days doesn’t mean that the argument is actually over. In fact, as far as I can tell, it’s just getting worse, where worse should be interpreted to mean “even more people coming out of the woodwork to argue about ethics when they don’t have any familiarity with ethics.” Granted, Twitter is full of sample bias, but still. It is for this reason that I think it’s still important to post this statement on the ethics of providing unproven interventions that my husband (a real life bioethicist) and I worked on last week. We were side-tracked by needing to actually verify the science behind ZMapp, as well as the additional hands-throwing-up of hearing that ZMapp was provided for a Spanish priest after various US public officials stated there was none left to give.2

Paternalism, Procedure, Precedent
The Ethics of Using Unproven Therapies in an Ebola Outbreak

A “secret serum.” A vaccine. A cure. A miracle. With the announcement of the use of ZMapp to treat two Americans sick with the Ebola virus with apparently no ill effect, the hum and buzz on social media, commentary websites, and even the 24/7 news cycle, has become one of “should the serum be given to Africa? Will it?” The question has dominated for more than a week, and become something that the World Health Organization feels it needs to address by convening a panel of medical ethics experts to offer an analysis of what should be done.

And the general question about untested cures/vaccines in the event of a disease pandemic is an important one; there are already guidelines for what kind of treatments can and will be made available during a flu pandemic, and it seems quite sensible that a guideline be developed for all potential pandemic pathogens. However, it isn’t a question that is relevant in the current context, because we are already past that.

While people may be stating “should the serum be made available?” that’s not the question being asked.
Continue reading

The Flaw in “Where Did it Come From?!” Ebola Panic Narratives

I am an aficionado, if you will, of the mystery plague novel. I can probably place the blame for that somewhere between my father and the science fiction he raised me on, and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.I was always bitter about the differences between book and movie, moreso than just about any other adaptation. And of course, one of the key aspects of the mystery plague novel is the driving question of “where did it come from?” The thinking typically goes that if we know the plague origin, we can cure it, and a panicked rush to discover both origin and cure drives many (if not most) stories in the genre.

So it’s not too surprising to see the mystery plague origin pop up in the West Africa Ebola outbreak coverage. There seems to be a lot of concern about it’s unknown origins, how did the virus get from Central Africa to West Africa, and assertions that this must mean mutation of some sort.I’m not linking because I refuse to drive traffic to bad science. It’s not hard to find the stories, if you know where to look.

A quickly pulled together map showing the combined ranges of fruit bats mentioned in Hayman DTS, Yu M, et al., save straw-colored bats, along with the current Ebola outbreaks in West African countries.
A quickly pulled together map showing the combined ranges of fruit bats mentioned in Hayman DTS, Yu M, et al., save straw-colored bats, along with the current Ebola outbreaks in West African countries.
All of which, of course, is of limited accuracy to flat-out wrong. In fact, you don’t even need to know what you’re looking for to find this information; I was looking for an outbreak map when I came across this Emerging Infectious Diseases letter from 2012: Ebola Virus Antibodies in Fruit Bats, Ghana, West Africa. The authors of the letter found a relatively high proportion of EBOV-seropositive bats in a small sample size of mixed bat species across Africa.

Africa. Not Central Africa. Not West or South or Noth. Just Africa. Which is a big continent, but bats? They have wings. And while the EBOV-seropositive bats were largely not straw-colored fruit bats, which often migrate as far as 1550 miles/2500 kilometers, they did have a significant range.

It didn’t take terribly long for Ian MackayHe’s the real deal. If you really want to understand viruses, find a virologist to throw questions at. I recommend Dr. Mackay, but I’m biased—he answers my questions, after all. to find a newer issue of EID reporting on testing Sierra Leone patient serum samples and finding a range of viral hemorrhagic diseases, including Ebola. Shortly after, he found a paper discussing EBOV antibodies in fruit bats in Bangladesh.

It isn’t a surprise that fruit bats are implicated in this current outbreak of Ebola, since they’ve long been considered a possible reservoir for the disease, and may also be the host. Nor is it terribly surprising that the bats have this large of a range, or even that as human settlement encroaches into the forest, there will be more spillover events. The bats, the humans moving into new habitat, the zoonotic virus spillovers; these are all part of the story of Ebola. It’s a story we’ve been piecing together for 38 years, because science is never so fast as it is in the books and movies, and it’s a story where the origin probably won’t inform the cure.

The mystery plague origin is one that appeals, and it’s easy to write. It plays into books and movies, people know the expected narration, and there’s a thrill to it; “is this the one?” as speculation for people who don’t really have to worry about if “this is the one.” It also ignores science and evidence, and turns real life tragedy into an adrenaline-based fictional story for reading before bed, erasing the victims, from that first family who died in December 2013, to those who died just a few minutes ago.

VSS Post-Show: Emily Willingham, PhD

This week on Virtually Speaking Science, my guest was Dr. Emily Willingham. Emily received both her BA and PhD at the University of Texas, Austin; the former was in English and the latter in Biological Sciences.You might be seeing a pattern with my guests. Her dissertation was on the effects of atrazine and temperature on the sex development of red slider turtles; she went on to do a fellowship in pediatric urology at University of California, San Francisco.

On academic achievement alone, Emily is impressive, but she didn’t forget her English background when she wandered into science. Instead, she has written for Scientific American, The Scientist, The New York Times, Slate, and Discover; has a regular column at Forbes called The Science Consumer; and is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of DoubleX Science. firefly_shiny_nathan_fillion_t_shirtShe was a Shorty Award finalist in 2013, as well as being selected for the Open Lab 2013 best in science writing online anthology. She has been blurbed by Steve Silberman and Ed Yong, and even has her own Wikipedia page.

Basically, she is shiny.

Emily sat down to talk with me about her multidisciplinary background, writing books at a precociously young age, and the Women in Science Writing Solutions Summit that was held at MIT last weekend. As you can imagine, we managed to fit a lot into the hour, and it was a fun show. Give it a listen! Below, you’ll find links to the papers, panels, and people we discussed.With thanks to my husband Nicholas, who has not only been live-tweeting my VSS shows, but has been acting as live scribe, gathering links and information real-time.

Something I learned about when researching Emily in preparation for the interview was that, long before Ed Yong was talking about zombie parasites, Emily had written about zombie grasshoppers. Or, as I prefer to think of them, creepy worm terrorist zombie hijackers.

One of the main inspirations for the recent summit was a session at NASW 2013 titled The XX Question. You can see the video of this powerful plenary session here.

In December, Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel joined Tom Levenson on Virtually Speaking Science to talk about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and science writing.

We spent a good amount of time discussing the results of a survey distributed across several professional writing communities. You can download and review the slides and data at this link.

Towards the end of the show, Emily and I started to talk about the stresses of being a feminist online, and, in particular, how it’s really necessary to know how to take care of yourself. We both referenced spoon theory (saying make sure you have your spoons); if you’re not familiar with that concept, here’s the essay that started it all.

For more information on the summit, you can head to the website, read the Storifies Maryn McKenna pulled together, and check out recaps and coverage page.