Life as an Extreme Sport

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.

One comment

  1. BTW, if you’re curious about the straw-colored fruit bat range (even though they don’t really appear to be a significant reservoir of the disease and probably aren’t natural hosts), I have a map for that, too. This shows the overlap of straw-colored bats with the other bat species listed in the post.

    Just straw-colored fruit bats alone can be seen at Wikipedia (source of all the original bat range maps that were compiled into one).

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