Six Big Lessons from the Ebola Outbreak

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which continues to rage and has now claimed the lives of more than 1100 people, offers some big lessons for America.

#1. For all its flaws, the American public health system is pretty good. We transported two patients from the middle of a hot zone who were infected with one of the world’s deadliest viruses to a major metropolitan area in the United States. We did this without infecting anybody else or putting the public in danger. The two Americans were treated with a “secret” remedy (that we reported on two years ago) and are continuing to improve. One of them may actually be discharged soon.

#2. Bringing the sick Americans home was the right thing to do. On August 1, the ever-present Donald Trump tweeted: “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!” If Ebola was as infectious as, say, measles or influenza, then Trump would be right to be concerned. If such a virus were to emerge, quarantining the patients abroad would probably be the appropriate course of action to prevent unnecessary risk to the American public. But Ebola is not that infectious. Ignorance is no excuse to stir up public anxiety, and Trump’s comments were completely out of line.

#3. Biotechnology and GMOs save lives. The antibody cocktail that was used to treat the patients was the product of biotechnology, specifically GMOs. Mouse genes were modified to become human-like, and then they were placed inside of a tobacco plant. The medicine was then extracted from the plant and given to the patients. (Read John Timmer’s excellent article for the details.) Keep in mind that this is the sort of life-saving research that anti-GMO activists are fighting to prevent.

#4. Do not destroy smallpox. A few months ago, the world was once again debatingwhether or not to destroy the known vials of smallpox that exist at the CDC in Atlanta and at a facility in Russia. Since that debate, the Ebola outbreak exploded, and some previously forgotten vials of smallpox reappeared in an NIH storage room. When scientists say we should keep smallpox around “just in case,” these are the sorts of surprises they are talking about. Yes, there is a real risk that smallpox (or some other deadly pathogen) could escape from a laboratory. But is the world really better off if we forego research out of fear?

#5. Americans need to pay more attention to global affairs. Separated by two vast oceans, and bordered by two friendly neighbors, we tend to be rather insular in terms of our global perspective. Unless there is a war or some other geopolitical instability that directly threatens our interests, we remain disinterested in the rest of the world. Even then, we still may not be able to find the troubled spot on a map, as 84% of Americans were unable to do with Ukraine. If merely 1 in 6 Americans can find a gigantic country bordering Russia on a map, just how few could find Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone — the center of the outbreak? In our modern, interconnected world, what happens on one side of the globe can and will affect the other side. Maybe it’s time to teach more geography in school.

#6. NIH funding should be increased. The U.S. government has neglected the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more or less letting funding slide ever since 2003. As Pacific Standard reported last year, “the Obama administration’s budget request for the 2014 fiscal year is $31.3 billion, more than 23 percent lower than the 2003 funding level in purchasing power.” If the U.S. wants to remain globally competitive and ready to fight disease, this downward trend needs to be reversed. Maybe the Ebola outbreak will force some very much needed bipartisanship.