Survivor of 2014 Ebola epidemic likely source of new outbreak in West Africa, researchers say

A survivor of the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa may have harbored the virus for at least five years and is likely the source of the latest outbreak, The New York Times reported March 12. 

Researchers performed genetic sequencing on virus samples from current patients and compared them to samples from the 2014-16 outbreak. Early findings, published March 12, showed they were very similar, the Times reported. 

"These shared mutations make it unlikely that the new cases are a result of a spillover from the animal reservoir, but instead are directly linked to human cases in the 2013-2016 West Africa Ebola virus disease outbreak," the study found. 

Experts suspect the virus may have hidden in "immunologically privileged sites" of the body, or areas where the virus can hide itself and remain unaffected by the immune system. 

"We have no idea how often this may be happening," William Schaffner, MD, infectious disease expert at Nashville, Tenn.-based Vanderbilt University, told the Times. Dr. Schaffner was not involved in the genetic analysis cited above. "As you can imagine, it's not easy to study hiding viruses in immunologically privileged sites, like the testicles, the eye and, rarely, the central nervous system. Those are not accessible places for easy study." 

A CDC spokesperson told the Times it has reviewed the sequencing data from the March 12 analysis. 

"While we can't be 100 percent certain, CDC agrees that data supports the conclusion that cases in the current outbreak are likely linked to cases in the area during the 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak," said Thomas Skinner, a spokesperson for the agency. "While we have seen outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo linked to survivors, the length of time between the end of the 2014-16 outbreak and the emergence of this outbreak is surprising and highlights the need for further research to better understand the complex epidemiology and ecology of Ebola." 

As of March 7, 18 Ebola cases had been reported in Guinea, West Africa, including 9 deaths. 

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