In June 1976 an unknown disease started killing people in Sudan. 151 out of 284 patients lost their lives to an illness, which at first looked like common flu. Its main symptoms included fever, sore throat, muscular pain, headache, and fatigue.
But within days the disease progressed, with patients starting to suffer from vomiting, combined with internal and external bleeding.
The agent that caused the illness was named "Sudan virus" and later became part of the larger Ebola virus family.
Just like many similar infectious diseases, Ebola is zoonotic in nature, meaning that it jumped from animals to humans. Its potential carriers include fruit bats – a large bat species, which are also called “flying foxes”, as well as several monkey species, gorillas and baboons.
Almost 20 years after the Sudan epidemic, Ebola re-surfaced in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with hundreds of people falling victim to the outbreaks.
Hollywood dedicated several movies to Ebola-style epidemics, with 1995’s “Outbreak” starring Morgan Freeman and Dustin Hoffman probably the most notable. In the film, US military virologists are struggling to contain Matoba – a virus that has jumped from monkeys to humans and largely resembles Ebola.
But there are also major differences between the two. According to the “Outbreak” screenplay, Matoba, which spreads lightning-fast through a California town, is airborne, while Ebola can only be transferred from one person to another only through liquids, such as blood, saliva and sweat:
We got 19 dead, we got 100 more infected. It’s spreading like a brushfire. - What are you talking about? - If one of them has got it, then 10 of them got it now, and if one of them gets on to Cedar Creek, then we’ve got a very interesting problem!
Hollywood’s fictional Ebola strain also has something in common with the COVID19 pandemic - namely that it is highly contagious due to its transmission from person to person through the air.
The good news is that the world is unlikely to be overwhelmed by Ebola since the disease has never made it outside of Africa. So far, the current outbreak mainly affects the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the disease has claimed more than 1,300 lives within the past three years.
By contrast, Covid-19 has already spread across most countries around the world, causing border closures, flight cancellations and economic losses, which may lead to an economic crisis of unprecedented scale.
Another major difference between the two is the mortality rate. While the Ebola virus kills between 25% and 90% of its carriers, according to the World Health Organization, by March 2020 the coronavirus had an average mortality rate of just 3.4 percent.
Even though no safe and effective Ebola treatment has yet been found, it seems that victory over the deadly jungle virus is near. In August 2019, Nature magazine described two experimental drugs produced by a US pharmaceutical company as being helpful in achieving 90% survival rates among Ebola patients. If these two drugs receive formal approval, it’s possible that together with the VSV-EBOV vaccine, which was introduced in 2016, they will be able to stop Ebola completely.
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