An Insider Report from the World's Largest Ebola Symposium

Reporting from Johns Hopkins’ Ebola Symposium…

Yes. We made it in the symposium (did you doubt us?).

Apparently, simply telling them you’re with the media goes a long way.

They only started organizing this event seven days ago, the organizer said as she showed us to our seats.

This is the first time they’ve pulled an event together so quickly. Must be urgent.

Now we’re currently sitting inside the largest Ebola symposium in the world. The room is packed full of epidemiologists, virologists, professors, scientists, students, and even a few family doctors.

The View from Inside the Largest Ebola Symposium in the World

If you tuned in yesterday, we reported in from a coffee shop within the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus just before we were about to make our way in.

Fast-forward an hour and we’re sitting inside the symposium with more doctors than the entire country of Liberia.

We’re serious.

In 2006, after trying to recover from a savage civil war, Liberia clocked in with a total of about 50 doctors. Yes, in the entire country.

As Martin Robbins wrote on the Vice blog yesterday, “you’d struggle to find a worse place for an outbreak to happen if you tried.”

Here’s what the world’s leaders in medicine had to say…

“Ebola is the WHO’s Sept. 11,” Dr. Michael Osterholm announced from the podium.

“It will redefine the role of the WHO from this point on.”

Dr. Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Osterholm - Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of MinnesotaSource: JHU
Dr. Osterholm. Definitely the most candid of the bunch

He’s also the author of the New York Times best-selling book Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe.

He’s known in the medical circles as one of the biggest critics of the lackadaisical and contradictory claims put out by the CDC and WHO about the Ebola crisis.

And the picture he paints of a future Africa is dark.

All of Africa is brewing a perfect storm for a continent-wide Ebola pandemic…

Let’s tick off the reasons…

First, on Monday, Osterholm reported, Liberian health care workers went on strike because of lack of gloves, masks, and goggles.

A mind-blowing 80% of them are expected to work with highly infectious Ebola victims without the proper protection. We’re talking about even the bare essentials here: gloves, gowns and bleach.

“If we can get iPhones delivered across the world in a day… why can’t we get equipment to Liberia?”

“If we can get iPhones delivered across the world in a day,” he said, “why can’t we get equipment to Liberia?” Osterholm asked, chastising the world’s response to the crisis.

We live in a country where we can give $384,949 to Yale University so they can study “Sexual Conflict, Social Behavior and the Evolution of Waterfowl Genitalia.”

(This happened last year. The researchers looked at… I’m not kidding… the ‘plasticity in duck penis length’.)

Yet they twiddle their thumbs for two weeks about spending a fraction of that to buy bleach and rubber gloves.

Proving that the so-called arbiter of humankind is only as quick to react as its self-interest will allow.

Meanwhile, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company has done more to help out with Ebola than Uncle Sam.

Yeah… Firestone.

“When it comes to Ebola,” Jason Beaubien wrote on NPR’s blog, “the rubber met the road at the Firestone rubber plantation in Harbel, Liberia.

“Harbel is a company town not far from the capital city of Monrovia. It was named in 1926 after the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Harvey and his wife, Idabelle.

“Today,” Jason writes, “Firestone workers and their families make up a community of 80,000 people across the plantation.

“Firestone detected its first Ebola case on March 30, when an employee’s wife arrived from northern Liberia. She’d been caring for a disease-stricken woman and was herself diagnosed with the disease.

“Since then Firestone has done a remarkable job of keeping the virus at bay. It built its own treatment center and set up a comprehensive response that’s managed to quickly stop transmission.”

This is only one example of the private sector leading the way to stop transmission. Nearly all the funding for new clinics is coming out of the private sector. One example is a group of 30 companies that was formed in August.

“Corporate and commercial firms have banded together to better coordinate efforts to eliminate Ebola in Liberia,” the All Africa blog reports. “The group, calling itself the Ebola Private Sector Mobilization Group (EPSMG), recently formed with the intent to support the government of Liberia and the Liberian people during this time of crisis.”

“The current Ebola virus’ hyper-evolution is unprecedented; there has been more human-to-human transmission in the past four months than most likely occurred in the last 500-1,000 years,” Osterholm recently wrote in an Op-Ed for NYT last month.

If certain mutations occurred… infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe…

“Each new infection represents trillions of throws of the genetic dice. If certain mutations occurred… infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe, as the H1N1 influenza virus did in 2009, after its birth in Mexico.”

Another speaker, Peter Jahrling, Chief Scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Integrated Research Facility, is also worried about how the virus is mutating…

His first concern arose when his team ran tests on patients in Liberia.

According to what they found, this Ebola strain appeared to carry a much higher “viral load” than previous strains. Meaning the virus is taking over much more of its victims’ blood than prior strains — potentially making it much more contagious.

“If true,” he said in a recent interview with Vox, “that’s a very different bug…

“I have a field team in Monrovia. They are running [tests]. They are telling me that viral loads are coming up very quickly and really high, higher than they are used to seeing. It turns out that in limited studies with the evacuated patients, they continued to express virus in blood and semen. What does that mean? Right now, we just don’t know.

“You can argue that any time the virus replicates it’s going to mutate. So there is a potential for the thing to acquire an aerogenic property, but that would have to be a dramatic change.”

But dramatic changes are this particular strains’ modus operandi…

Early in the outbreak, a group of researchers looked at how the virus was changing in Sierra Leone. They discovered that there had already been more than 300 genetic mutations.

“It’s frightening to look at how much this virus has mutated within just three weeks,” Dr. Pardis Sabeti, an associate professor at Harvard, told CNN at the time.

Yeah… they’re saying it has the potential to go airborne…

“We have never been in a position to determine if airborne transmission is possible,” said Dr. Osterholm.

But he’s not ruling it out. And he said we shouldn’t let the possibility escape our minds. Because if it were to happen, we would need a concerted global action to stop it.

Imagine an airplane with just one person carrying the airborne virus. All that recycled air would likely infect every single person on that plane. Then all those people disperse at the next airport and get on a new plane. Ad infinitum.

Less than 21 days later, there are outbreaks in every corner of the world.

He said that many professionals are discounting it as if it were impossible. It’s not.

“Imagine,” Dr. C.J. Peters, a virologist at the University of Texas, said along the same lines, “every time you copy an essay, you change a word or two. Eventually, it’s going to change the meaning of an essay.”

Osterholm brought up one example of airborne denial in an article by New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer, who, in one tweet, summed up his opinion on the matter:

NY Times Columnist Carl Zimmer Tweets Denial About Ebola Becoming Airborne

It’s not that simple, said Osterholm. But debunking Zimmer’s statement is.

  1. Wolves aren’t viruses
  2. Wolves don’t mutate rapidly after infecting hosts
  3. Because wolves aren’t viruses

“[Ebola going airborne is] the single greatest concern I’ve ever had in my 40-year public health career,” Osterholm told CNN recently.

“I can’t imagine anything in my career — and this includes HIV — that would be more devastating to the world than a respiratory transmissible Ebola virus.”

Even more frightening is how quickly the virus has spread in just the past three weeks…

Upon writing, there have been well over 4,400 deaths from this outbreak.

Incredibly, 40% of these cases have happened in the past three weeks.

And it’s about to get a lot worse (more on that in a moment).

And if the U.S. government is honest, says Dr. Osterholm, they’re pretty clueless as to how to help.

“The virus has hardly pinged us until now. Yet we act like we know so much about it,” said Dr. Osterholm.

“I know a hell of a lot less about Ebola than I did six months ago,” he admitted to the crowd.

“If West Africa was a tank of gas waiting for a match to hit it… the rest of Africa is a tanker.”

This is despite, he said, poring over 900 papers on the deadly disease.

In contrast, the CDC and the WHO — the two government organizations who have been the most vocal about our “handle” on the situation — are secretly flailing around trying to keep up appearances.

But all the blush in the world isn’t going to stop what could come to the entire continent of Africa… and then, potentially, the world.

“If West Africa was a tank of gas waiting for a match to hit it,” Dr. Osterholm said, “the rest of Africa is a tanker.”

Get this…

Every year, hundreds of thousands of workers migrate from East Africa to West Africa and back, looking for work.

And now… during the absolute worst of the infection… it’s time for migration.

“Each year,” Osterholm wrote in late September, “thousands of young West African men and boys are part of a migratory work population not too dissimilar from U.S. migrant farm workers. “Crop-friendly rains wash over West Africa from May-October, forming the growing season.

“These young men typically help with harvesting in their home villages from August to early October, but afterward head off for temporary jobs in artisanal gold mines in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Ghana; cocoa nut and palm oil plantations in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire; palm date harvesting and fishing in Mauritania and Senegal; and illicit charcoal production in Senegal, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

“The migration is about to begin, even for young men whose villages have been recently hit by [Ebola]. These workers find daily laborer jobs at $5 per day, half of which they remit to their families back home. Like their ancestors before them, they use little-known routes and layovers through forests to avoid frontier checkpoints.

“They usually have ECOWAS ID cards, providing free passage to all member states of the Economic Community of West African States. It takes one to three days to travel from the EVD-affected countries to these work destinations. There is no need for Ebola to hop on an airplane to move across Africa: it can travel by foot.

“Control of Ebola,” says Dr. David Peters, MD, chair of the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins, “actually depends on a community-based containment care strategy.”

Dr. Peters wasn’t offering idle speculation.

He was quoting the minister of health in Congo, Dr. Felix Kabange Numbi, who has seen his fair share of Ebola outbreaks.

Dr. Numbi says that the current outbreak marks the seventh time the people in DR Congo have dealt with Ebola since its identification in 1976.

Monday, Numbi held a press conference to announce there have been no new cases of Ebola for 20 days.

“This already shows that the disease is under control even if we do not talk about eradication, because you have to wait 42 days after the last case,” he said.

The last official tally reported a total of 71 cases, with 43 of them resulting in death.

The DR Congo’s apparent control of the disease is good news…

“The current virus,” Osterholm said, “is completely different from any strain we’ve seen.”

But the strain of Ebola in the Congo is different than what’s currently ravaging West Africa.

According to one speaker, Trish Perl, a professor of medicine and senior epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, the virus in the Congo has been traced back to a pregnant mother who contracted it when she ate bush meat.

The one spreading through Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea is of a different breed.

“The current virus,” Osterholm said, “is completely different from any strain we’ve seen.”

And it’s spreading at an accelerated rate. Every three to six weeks, the panel told us, the number of infected cases will double.

And it we don’t do anything, we’re going to have a massive global crisis on our hands.

Until tomorrow,

Chris Campbell
for The Daily Reckoning

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