Faculty scientists have completed computer analysis of the deadly Ebola virus which has shown that it has not evolved to become any more deadly since its first outbreak almost 40 years ago.
The surprising results show that whilst the virus has undergone a high number of genetic changes, the virus has not become any more virulent. The findings, published in the journal Virology, help prove that the higher death toll in the current outbreak is not because of a change in the way the virus infects humans.
This may prove to be extremely useful. Professor David Robertson says:
“The fact that Ebola isn’t changing in a way that affects the virulence of the disease means that vaccines and treatments developed during this current outbreak have a very high chance of being effective against future outbreaks. It also means that methods to successfully tackle the virus should work again, so hopefully in the future an outbreak can be stopped from spreading at a much earlier stage.”
The team used a computational approach, developed by PhD student Abayomi Olabode, that was previously used to analyse changes in the HIV-1 virus. The major advantage of using a computer-based approach is that research can be carried out in a very quick and safe way – something that is vital when studying viral epidemics. Importantly, this type of modelling can be done in real time, meaning that scientists can better react to deadly diseases as they happen.
Viral outbreaks, such as Ebola, need to be continually monitored for any change, including those that make the virus less potent. If symptoms are less severe, there is a greater chance that the virus will go unidentified. Infected individuals can spread the virus more widely throughout a population, making it harder to trace those who have been exposed to it and ultimately causing more deaths. Professor Robertson comments:
“This level of surveillance will only become more essential in the fight against contagious illness as we live in an increasingly globally connected society.”
On the results of the study, Professor Tony Redmond, from the University’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute says:
“These are very important findings and emphasise that the spread of the virus in this outbreak owed as much to factors within the human community than within the virus itself.”
It is now thought that computer approaches like this one used to study Ebola will become the standard way to look at viral epidemics in the future.