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When Ebola's Contained, Where Does It Go?

Frederick A. Murphy
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Slowly, West Africa is prying itself free from the grip of the Ebola virus. Today on Think, Krys Boyd talked about why it’s tough for scientists to track the virus once an outbreak ends with David Quammen, who writes about the topic in the July issue of National Geographic.

Quammen says that scientists at least have a general idea of where to look for Ebola – the same place any other virus hides out.

“Viruses can only replicate in living cells – viruses are not cellular creatures themselves. They’re not even quite alive, depending on how you define life," he says. "They can only replicate using the cell machinery of a living cell – that means they’ve got to abide in another creature – a plant, an animal, a fungus.”

Viruses that affect humans – including Ebola, are usually hosted by animals like bats or rodents. And even though the recent Ebola outbreak has been in the news for more than a year, Quammen says it’s actually tough for scientists to track it down while it’s active.

“It’s a bad situation for other scientists to come in dressed in their moonsuits and start collecting bats and rodents and other creatures and dissecting them and looking for the virus," he says. "It’s a bad time to do science, because there’s a public health crisis; because medical help is needed.”

There is reason to be optimistic about tracking down Ebola, though. Quammen says the African outbreak generated so much media attention that the scientific community will likely be able to raise the necessary funds to continue hunting the virus. Also, three types of fruit bats are now known to contain both antibodies against Ebola and fragments of Ebola RNA – a building block of the virus.

“To find antibodies against Ebola or fragments of Ebola RNA is like finding the footprints of a yeti in the snow," he says. "But to isolate live virus is like finding the foot of a live Yeti in a leghold trap. And that hasn’t yet been done with Ebola.”

Once scientists can actually identify the live Ebola virus in those wild reservoir hosts, they’ll have clearer insight into how human outbreaks begin.

Think re-airs tonight at 9 or listen to the podcast.

Stephen Becker is executive producer of the "Think with Krys Boyd," which airs on more than 200 stations across the country. Prior to joining the Think team in 2013, as part of the Art&Seek team, Stephen produced radio and digital stories and hosted "The Big Screen" — a weekly radio segment about North Texas film — with Chris Vognar.