After a laymen tour in the New Yorker on what makes the Ebola virus tick, Richard Preston explains what "genomics research" can do to "help contain the outbreak." It's terrifying to read that despite many precautions taken, front line workers were infected — even those not working directly in contact with the sick — and died.
Despite its ferocity in humans, Ebola is a life-form of mysterious simplicity. A particle of Ebola is made of only six structural proteins, locked together to become an object that resembles a strand of cooked spaghetti. An Ebola particle is only around eighty nanometres wide and a thousand nanometres long. If it were the size of a piece of spaghetti, then a human hair would be about twelve feet in diameter and would resemble the trunk of a giant redwood tree.
Once an Ebola particle enters the bloodstream, it drifts until it sticks to a cell. The particle is pulled inside the cell, where it takes control of the cell’s machinery and causes the cell to start making copies of it. Most viruses use the cells of specific tissues to copy themselves. For example, many cold viruses replicate in the sinuses and the throat. Ebola attacks many of the tissues of the body at once, except for the skeletal muscles and the bones.
And speaking of pandemics, Popular Mechanics looks at the controversial work of University of Wisconsin's Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist working in flu pandemic prevention research. Kawaoka, who is recreating the Spanish Flu virus of 1918, is hopeful that his work will beat "back a pandemic should one break out, or preventing one in the first place."
So far, ferrets and mice constitute the only casualties of Kawaoka's research (ferrets are considered to be the best animal for virus testing because they react to the flu in much the same way humans do). To test the virulence of a given mutated flu, Kawaoka infects those species, but the animals do not pass from this world in vain. Kawaoka's controversial studies have shown that the lab-generated mutations are treatable with the antiviral drug oseltamivir, otherwise known as Tamiflu, which suggests that the dangerous viruses in his lab are not as dangerous as they sound.
Indeed, it turns out that after a virulent new flu spreads, after all the misery it may cause, humans develop resistance to it. The 2009 swine flu? That now circulates as a seasonal malady, and if the 1918 virus were to return, even in Kawaoka's re-created form, we would have nearly complete immunity to it. You could probably spread that form of the flu on toast with no ill effect.
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