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paranoid theory of the week :: is ebola really a biological weapon?

welcome to a few feature here on more like space, dedicated to the wonderful world of the paranoid, the sinister and the conspiratorial. although i'm pleased to wallow in my skepticism, i've always been fascinated by alternative theories of history, science and politics. i'm entertained by the sheer lunacy of many of them. i admire the holistic nature of others, where every detail is carefully folded into the master plan, like some kind of universal origami. still others impress me because they actually turn out to be true. so i figure i'll share my love in the name of entertainment and possible education, by breaking down different theories [i don't believe i'll ever run out of material] and evaluating the likelihood that there's anything to them. for the rating system, i'll be using a scale from 0-10, where 0 means a theory has been disproved/ is too batshit insane to consider and 10 means that it's been shown to be true. [i'm going to invoke the legal standard of "reasonable doubt" in those extremes, because i know that there will always be a small number of people who can't be convinced by anyone.]

the theory :: ebola is man-made

the ebola virus is actually a bio-weapon that either escaped or was introduced to humans in the third world. 


the story ::


at this point, what we're seeing is "the ebola conspiracy 2". the first wave came in the 1990s when an outbreak of ebola- technically a family of viruses that cause hemorrhagic fever- in zaire. the virulence of the disease, its staggering fatality rate and the lack of a cure immediately caught people's attention. chronicled in the nonfiction book the hot zone and fictionalized in the film outbreak, ebola seemed to hit everyone's fear triggers.

according to conspiracy proponents, the virus was actually created in a lab. the first wave of ebola conspiracies in the 1990s were split between those who claimed that the virus had been introduced into certain populations of africa [either to suppress local resistance to western domination or just to see what would happen] and those who claimed that american "research centres" [biological weapons development centres] were just sloppy and left the top off the wrong mason jar.

theories related to the more recent outbreak, that started in guinea in 2013 and has killed more than ten thousand to date, are more willing to concede that earlier ebola outbreaks may have been natural, but that the current outbreak is the result of a weaponized version of the virus, because it has been more deadly and more difficult to contain.

the originator ::

this is always hard to pin down, but the most influential of the early theorists is probably dr. leonard horowitz. horowitz alleges that two great scourges of africa- ebola and aids- were both developed in laboratories in the 1960s as potential biological weapons. those who have adopted a conspiratorial view of ebola have generally built on horowitz' work.

however, among the modern conspiracy theorists, none is more important than professor francis boyle. boyle is not some fringe character. he's an expert on biowarfare and international law. he co-authored the biological weapons anti-terrorism act of 1989 and sat on the government committee on bio-technology. he raised the spectre of sinister causes for the 2013 ebola outbreak, saying that he didn't believe the new virus was behaving like the one that he had studied, but rather like a genetically modified variant. he claimed research centres in the third world often concealed weapons development behind the altruistic cover of searching for vaccines to tropical diseases and pointed out that there was one such research centre located in kenema, sierra leone, more or less the centre of the current outbreak.

in addition, there have emerged a whole family of conspiracy strains that link the current ebola epidemic to president barack obama.

the believers ::

trust me, i'm an eye doctor
a surprisingly large number of public figures believe at least some of the current hype. presidential candidate senator rand paul was one of the most visible, insisting that ebola was much more contagious than people were being lead to believe, that the virus had become airborne and that the obama administration was covering this up so that the american people wouldn't realise they were doing a piss-poor job of protecting them. paul, along with a handful of other republicans [phil gingrey, todd rokita, thom tillis, mike huckabee and scott brown, to varying degrees] have alleged some connection between ebola, obama and the mexican border.

but lest you think that this sort of paranoia is exclusively a right wing preoccupation, feminist author naomi wolf has claimed that raising the fear level about ebola is what will eventually provide an excuse for the obama administration to impose martial law. and controversial nation of islam leader louis farrakhan has indicated that he believes ebola is a biological weapon created by the united states to be used against people of colour. 

with the insertion of president obama into the debate, public figures have been a lot more willing to embrace theories about ebola that deviate from the commonly accepted line. conspiracies about ebola were viewed with considerably greater skepticism during its first moment in the media sun twenty years ago.

the bad guys ::

the world health organisation, doctors without borders, pharmaceutical heavyweight sanofi-pasteur [along with their major shareholders the rothschild group and l'oreal], the centre for disease control, tekmira pharmaceuticals [the canadian company that has developed a promising treatment for ebola under contract to the united states department of defense], the governments of canada, the united states, the united kingdom and france.

the evidence ::

science tells us that ebola is a family of five viruses [only four of which are known to cause infection in humans] that were first seen in simultaneous outbreaks in sudan and the democratic republic of congo in 1976. it is thought that the virus appeared first in animals, specifically fruit bats, along with certain species of primates who come in contact with these bats. it spread to humans through the consumption of bushmeat- basically the eating of monkeys and other primates- in rural areas of africa. the only proven way to contract ebola [sorry, senator paul] is through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. the mortality rate is incredibly high, because the virus weakens the organs, massively dehydrates the body, reproduces quickly and has no known treatment. [as a matter of information, it's a myth that ebola is characterised by profuse internal and external bleeding. hemorrhaging can occur, but definitely not in all cases and certainly not as profusely as many westerners have been led to believe.]

because of its extraordinary mortality rate and epidemic nature, there is the impression that ebola kills far more people than it actually does. even in the areas most effected by the disease, you're more likely to die from malaria or diarrhea, to say nothing of strains of influenza, which are far more contagious.

thanks, obama.
as to whether or not it might have been caused, either originally or in its latest manifestation, by a biological weapons experiment gone wrong... well, it's not completely out to lunch. many countries have conducted research on using pathogens as weapons, including anthrax, staphylococcus, hantavirus and botulism. research on biological weapons was officially ended by the two sides in the cold war in 1972 with the biological weapons convention. [president richard nixon had ended research on offensive chemical weapons in 1969 and order the reserves of such weapons destroyed.] the convention did, however, allow the development of certain biologicals, provided they were defensive. that's such a difficult term.

of the diseases investigated as potential weapons by the united states, the one that stands out for our purposes is hantavirus, because it is a variety of hemorrhagic fever-causing virus, like ebola. that doesn't make it the same as ebola, but it at least means that the united states government has admitted that it was at some point researching the possibility of using hemorrhagic fever viruses as weapons. one american worker even died after contracting a south american strain of hemorrhagic fever, machupo virus, on the job. the biopreparat, basically the biological weapons research body in the soviet union, also investigated the weapons potential of margburg virus, allegedly as late as 1992 and head reseracher nikolai ustinov died after accidentally coming in contact with an artificially powerful strain of marburg virus. so, yes, both sides of the cold war do seem to have looked into the possibilities of using ebola-like viruses as weapons and the case of ustinov indicates that at least the soviets may have succeeded in creating a more deadly strain of virus.

officially every country has conducted its biochemical weapons research on its own soil, so stories of covert sites in other countries are unsubstantiated. there is, of course, precedent for skepticism of these claims. so-called "black sites", secret prisons used to facilitate the extra-judicial rendition of suspected terrorists to american facilities, were a conspiracy theory until president george w. bush acknowledged their existence in 2006. let's call the allegation that the united states and/ or the soviet union had or have weapons research facilities in africa "neither proven nor categorically disproved".

as to francis boyle's assertion that the strain of ebola virus seen in the 2013 outbreak is more deadly and more dangerous than earlier strains of the disease... there appears to be some merit to that. the original 1976 outbreak of ebola killed a larger percentage of those infected, but there were a much smaller number of infections and the disease was unknown at the time, so medical staff would not have known how to contain it. the virus specifically responsible for the current outbreak was analyzed by research teams in the united states and sierra leone, who found that there were 341 differences between the new virus and the previously encountered versions of the zaire ebola virus, to which the new one is most closely related. however, researchers have not been able to say definitively whether or not those changes are responsible for the increased mortality rate of the new virus.

the second part of boyle's comments, that the virus showed signs of having been genetically modified, is not possible to verify, viruses morph on their own, all living things do. however, the case of nikolai ustinov shows that at least one facility had succeeded in creating a deadlier strain. there's no reason to think that the changes in the virus' structure is anything more than natural adaptation [341 differences sounds like a lot, but isn't really], but the idea that a higher octane ebola was engineered in a lab isn't beyond the realm of possibility either.

there exists no evidence that weaponized hemorrhagic fever was ever released anywhere except in a couple of lab accidents. there is evidence, lots of basically undisputed evidence, that governments have gotten all stupid when it's come to the handling of biological weapons. the united states dumped arseloads of agent orange in southeast asia without bothering to consider the effects it might have on their own soldiers, much less the people who lived there. later administrations have copped to having used human guinea pigs in ethically questionable research in mkultra and tuskegee. during the second world war, the united kingdom conducted experiments on the scottish island of gruinard that left it so badly contaminated that it was quarantined for fifty years. the soviet union accidentally released smallpox and anthrax to the general population of two separate towns. that's far from an exhaustive list, but i think it's enough to establish that, if someone had developed weaponized ebola, there's no reason to assume that they would have been careful about what they did with it.

of course, there's also the question of why world powers would be interested in researching ebola as a weapon at all. barring laboratory slip-ups, it's not a particularly dangerous epidemic outside regions with poor health care facilities. once identified, countries with modern hospitals and health care networks will isolate patients, which basically stops the progress of the disease in its tracks. the virus isn't particularly robust, so you can't travel easily with it. and finally, it requires exposure to bodily fluids to transmit, which makes it difficult for one infected person to do a lot of damage, even if they start going all zombie apocalypse and chewing on strangers' arms.

one "smoking gun" for conspiracy boosters is that the response to the most recent epidemic of ebola on the part of  the united nations and particularly the world health organization was sluggish. having seen in the mid-nineties that the improper handling of ebola victims by people who didn't know any better made the outbreak worse, it seemed to take health officials an inordinate amount of time to take much notice of what was happening. it's one of those peculiarly ambivalent occurrences that populate many conspiracy theories: it could be evidence of western indifference to problems in africa, or it could be deliberate.

the likelihood :: 3/10

the real problem with the man-made ebola conspiracy theory is that there isn't a lot of compelling evidence in favour of it. the most interesting arguments for a conspiracy are no more than circumstantial. no credible person has come forward to claim that they've witnessed or participated in any covert action related to the spread of ebola. much of the "connected" conspiracy theories- that president obama plans to sneak ebola in over the mexican border, that it will be used as an excuse to impose martial law, that the virus can be contracted other than through exchange of fluids- have no evidence to back them up whatsoever. [i'm basing my evaluation on the central theory only: that ebola is man-made.]

as conspiracies go, however, the idea that a more dangerous form of ebola was released, by accident or by some ill-planned test, as part of military research, isn't the craziest thing you'll ever hear, because there are confirmed cases of similar incidents. at the very least, there is a grain of truth, which is that hemorrhagic fever viruses were studied as potential weapons and that there were at least two deaths as the result of this research.

[the image at the top of this post is the ebola virus, as rendered by the geek geniuses at giant microbes. if you know anyone who's kinda clever and half as interested in plush toys as i am, their products are a guaranteed home run.]

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