The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the deadliest occurrence of the disease since its discovery in 1976 and has sent media coverage wild.
This isn’t the first time the proliferation of a deadly disease has caught the world’s attention. Who can forget the 1918 flu pandemic – that circled the globe wreaking so much destruction that its effects have been compared to those of the First World War? Or the 2009 panic in Britain regarding ‘swine flu’?
To this day — though we remember little else about the fourteenth century — we are all familiar with the Black Death; probably the greatest plague in human history, a seemingly indiscriminate killer that wiped out between 30% and 60% of Europe’s population.
Throughout the centuries, the outbreak of a deadly disease has the ability to spark religious, social, economic and political upheavals. Whilst the long-term consequences of the current outbreak of Ebola remain to be seen, it is clear that these wheels are already in motion.
Ever since the death of the first European victim of Ebola, a Spanish priest and missionary named Miguel Pajares who was working in Liberia, media coverage of the issue has increased exponentially. Ebola has also been rocketing up the list of priorities for governments around the world. A prediction from the US public health institute claims that 1.4 million people may be infected by the virus by January if it continues unchecked.
Ministers, diplomats and humanitarian organisations from 20 different countries have pledged a further £79 million to control the outbreak. It has already killed more than 3,000 people, and a group of 35 European security officials from the European Leadership Framework, issued a joint declaration suggesting that Ebola should be treated in the same way as the threat posed by nuclear weapons.
In the US, which has already had its first case of Ebola, the debate has become even more heated. One Fox News correspondent even highlighted the national security implications in these terms: ’We have a border that is so porous Ebola or ISIS or Ebola on the backs of ISIS could come through our border.’
Whilst this has prompted many commentators in the West to question why politicians don’t expend the same amount of energy trying to conquer somewhat more common killers, such as heart disease, it cannot be denied that Ebola, which has left around 70% of people infected to die a painful death, is a terrifying disease.
It is this that gives Ebola the power to make both people, and their governments, very afraid indeed. It was the middle of the Cold War when the disease was first identified and mistrust between the United States and Soviet Union still ran very deep. What would happen if an enemy tried to use the virus as a biological weapon? This question preoccupied the British military, which kept a live Ebola sample at Porton Down, one of the government’s military science parks, in order to try and understand the virus and perhaps even engineer a vaccine.
After the Cold War ended, however, the military’s interest in Ebola began to fade. Professor Charles Arntzen, a plant biologist at the Biodesign Institute in Arizona, recounts the declining interest in trying to combat Ebola in a post-Cold War world: ‘If I had been a research director in a pharmaceutical company and I went up to my CEO and said “you know we should really develop a drug against Ebola”, he’d look at me like I was nuts. This is a disease that has — now we have a few thousand cases — before it was a few hundred cases per year. The people who get the disease are very poor. I mean, there just was no return on investment for big pharma.’
However, according to Arntzen this attitude changed dramatically following the 9/11 terrorist atrocity, which had the US military newly focusing on bioterrorism. This meant Ebola jumped from being a poorly studied, not much known about disease to a Category A Biothreat. This opened up government funding for scientists to try and combat the disease.
It now seems like those fighting Ebola are well placed, with more money than ever pledged to try and tackle the disease and save lives. However, scientists’ efforts to produce a vaccine and save lives have already fluctuated in the tide of world affairs and have been subject to both political and financial imperatives.
It’s too early to tell what kind of influence this outbreak, once it abates, will have had on the world at large, or even whether fears of biological warfare were justified.