Ebola Is Not a Weapon

Conspiracy theories are highly contagious. Here’s why they’re wrong.

Don’t let this stock image of a mad scientist gaslight you, Ebola is not a bioweapon and never will be.

Photo by science photo/Shutterstock

Stop it. Just stop it. Ebola isn’t a potential weapon for terrorists.

It isn’t, as reported by Forbes and the Daily Mail, a low-tech weapon of bioterror for ISIS. It isn’t the final refuge of a lone wolf on a suicide mission, in the words of Fox News. It isn’t a U.S.-built race-targeting bioweapon, as the leader of the Nation of Islam declared.

Ebola is very real, and very scary. But this outbreak isn’t a recipe for a bioweapon. Not unless you want to be the most incompetent bioterrorist in history.

First, the virus isn’t a viable bioweapon candidate. It doesn’t spread quickly—its R0, a measure of how infectious a virus is, is about 2. That means that, in a population where everyone is at risk, each infected person will, on average, infect two more people. But because someone with Ebola is infectious only when she shows symptoms, we’ve got plenty of chances to clamp down on an outbreak in a country with a developed public health system.

And unlike some bioweapons, such as anthrax, Ebola’s transmission mechanism makes it really hard to weaponize. Anthrax spores can be dried and milled so they form little particles that can float on the air and be inhaled. Ebola requires the transmission of bodily fluids, and those don’t make efficient or stealthy weapons.

(And no—even though you may have heard this—Ebola is not “airborne.” The one study everyone talks about showed that pigs could transmit Ebola to macaques through an unknown mechanism that may have involved respiratory droplets. The researchers noted, however, that they couldn’t get macaques to transmit it to each other. The take-home from the study is really that pigs can spread Ebola.)

This alone pretty much rules it out as a bioweapon. A terrorist organization would have to go door to door with bags of blood and vomit to infect even a handful of people—and you’d probably notice it.

What about “suicide sneezers,” you may ask? Someone who deliberately infects herself with Ebola and then proceeds to pass it on to others?

That’s a losing game for the terrorist. Someone with Ebola isn’t infectious until she has symptoms, and even then, there is often only a small window for action before the disease takes hold. Many people who contract Ebola do so while caring for someone who is crippled by the affliction. A terrorist who wants to infect others isn’t likely to be functional enough to run around spreading the disease for very long—and even then, will find it hard to transmit the virus.

As for conspiracies about engineered Ebola, we know the virus appeared in 1976. The 1970s was also a time when genetic engineering was in its infancy—no one could’ve engineered a virus, even if he’d wanted to. Short of a time-traveling bioterrorist, that particular theory isn’t tenable.

What about now, though? Could a bioterrorist group—or, more likely, a secret national bioweapons program, like the one run by the Soviet Union during the Cold War—take Ebola and modify it to be airborne or more contagious? It isn’t likely. Why? One, because it is really difficult—we just don’t know enough about viruses to spontaneously engineer new traits. There is also a whole host of other nasty bugs that are already better designed to be weapons. Bugs like smallpox. If terrorists are going to go to all the trouble of engineering a bioweapon, they are likely to pick a much, much better starting point than Ebola.

Finally, even if one of these unlikely scenarios came to pass, what enemy is going to be able to claim to have weaponized Ebola and have anyone believe them? ISIS and other militant groups rely on carefully managed reputations to achieve their goals. Executions and explosions work for terrorists because there is something to be gained in doing so: fear, and credit for causing fear. There’s nothing to be gained in using a disease like Ebola during an outbreak because it is difficult prove it was deliberate, and thus you can’t brag about it.

The fear that an emerging infectious disease could in fact be a weapon is not new. In 1918, Lt. Col. Philip S. Doane voiced a suspicion that the pandemic “Spanish flu” strain was in fact a germ weapon wielded by German forces. More recently, an Australian professor of epidemiology argued that Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome could be a bioterror agent. People love to craft theories that provide malevolent agency to disease outbreaks. Yet while bioterrorism is possible—advances in technology are making that easier—for now, nature is almost always the culprit.

Ebola isn’t a weapon; it’s the collision between humans and their environment. It’s about the failure of public health in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. And it’s a failure, on our parts, to act and assist the people of these countries. That’s a failure of trust.

In developed countries, the biggest threat is not the terrorist, but fear. That fear is causing lawmakers to campaign for stepping up screening, even though it is unlikely to work—it is too hard to track people in air travel, and it isn’t effective at detecting cases. That fear is causing politicians to claim that we should seal the border to Mexico, or ban all flights out of West Africa.

That fear is a powerful weapon that can be used against us. Terror leading us to make bad decisions is much more effective against rich, developed nations than Ebola could be. If we want to beat the latter, we have to beat the former.

To beat Ebola, we have to worry less about terrorists, and more about helping others.

Read more of Slate’s Ebola coverage.