The Curious Case of The Bat In Southern Guinea: Why We Still Don’t Know How The Ebola Outbreak Started

Imagine, for a moment, that the United States is being ravaged by a mysterious and deadly virus. This virus—let’s call it the Stanley Virus—is believed to have first appeared a little less than a year ago in a community somewhere along the border separating West Virginia from Virginia, but an exact time and location has yet to be determined. When Stanley first appeared, there was little alarm raised outside of certain scientific circles and the affected communities themselves. At the time, the lethality of Stanley was well established, but there had never been a large outbreak of the virus. Back in the 1980s, there had been two separate outbreaks in the eastern portions of Washington state and Oregon, but they disappeared with more of a whimper than a bang, having killed around a dozen people in each instance. This history, along with the lack of political pull of the Appalachian populations it effected, led both state and federal governments to gloss over the issue during the outbreak’s early stages.

By the time the summer had rolled around, government officials began to realize the error of their laissez faire approach to the outbreak, but by that point it was too late. The Stanley Virus had spread throughout the American south with alarming quickness and had begun to make its way into parts of the midwest and mid-atlantic regions. The death toll was rising almost exponentially and an increasingly panicked public was demanding answers and accountability from their elected officials. Hospitals and urgent cares were so overcrowded and understaffed that they were forced to only keep their doors open for only 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening, the open beds for new patients often made so by the passing of its previous occupant.

In a concerted effort to find a cure and to determine the origins of the outbreak, a group of scientists from Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines were sent to America to try and determine the source of the epidemic. The lead researcher on the project, Dr. Van Anh Phan, was a renowned expert in the field of zoonotic diseases (diseases which can be passed from animals to humans) and had considerable experience dealing with the Stanley Virus when it appeared in Pacific Northwest. Dr. Phan and his colleagues had been unable to prove exactly how the virus was transmitted in Oregon & Washington state, but they had what they thought to be a very solid hypothesis for how the Stanley Virus started to spread in the Appalachian Mountains.

Dr. Phan and his team believed that they could trace the beginning of the Stanley outbreak to its “patient zero” by heading to the Appalachians and studying what they believed was the index case in the outbreak, a two year old boy in the southwest West Virginia village of Eckman. They went into Eckman with the hypothesis that the boy had contracted the virus through zoonotic transmission and conducted their research with that as their focal point, not spending much, if any, time looking at other scenarios. After several weeks of collecting wildlife samples, talking to locals and surveying the terrain, they came to their conclusion and went back east to write a paper on the subject.

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An abandoned building alongside the main road running through Eckman, West Virginia.

Ultimately, Dr. Phan and his team wrote that their hypotheses had been largely confirmed by the their findings and that the young boy who was the patient zero for the epidemic was infected through contact with a local animal. Contrary to his research in the Pacific Northwest, where mountain lions and other big cats were believed to be the primary mode of transmission, Dr. Phan found that there wasn’t a decrease in the population for large mammals in the area around Eckman, which indicated that if there was an animal responsible for transmission of the virus, it would have to be a smaller one. Acting on this new information, Dr. Phan and his team came to the conclusion that squirrels were the most likely carrier of the disease. Due to their prevalence in the region and cultural customs of the locals, the eastern grey squirrel was identified as the most likely culprit. It is traditional for adults and children to hunt squirrels in this part of the country for purposes of consumption and/or sport and the hollow in which the young boy and his family lived was surrounded by wooded areas with very high squirrel populations.

Upon arriving in Eckman and talking with the villagers, Dr. Phan and his team discovered that a favorite hunting spot for children was in the attics and chimneys of abandoned houses and other structures that where once occupied and frequented by coal miners when the industry was booming in the area during the early and middle portions of the 20th century, and that a group of children had recently found several nests within a dilapidated old house that sat between the community’s main thoroughfare and the railroad tracks that ran by the town. It is here, that the researchers believe the young child contracted the Stanley Virus, most likely from a bite from the squirrel, although direct blood-to-blood contact is still a possibility.

By the time Dr. Phan and his team reached the proposed infection site, a strong storm had taken the roof off of the building and the squirrel nests had been destroyed, although they were able to find plenty of other nests nearby from which to collect specimens. The researchers were unable to find any squirrels that tested positive for the Stanley Virus in Eckman, but said that the fact that Stanley positive squirrels were suspected as the cause to previous outbreaks meant that transmission was certainly possible. In the end, the researchers sum up their findings by claiming that their hypothesis of zoonotic transmission of the Stanley Virus via squirrel was the most likely way the outbreak began, despite finding no trace of the virus in any squirrels in the area.

Regardless of the lack of empirically validated findings, the mainstream media in Asia and Oceania ran wild with the story, with all manner of media from daily papers and blogs to television reports and magazines presenting the the story as a major breakthrough in the battle against Stanley. Some news outlets failed to mention the lack of tangible results from the study, while others hedged their bets by saying that the scientists “may have” or “were likely to have” found the origins of the virus, but for the most part they didn’t highlight that fact in their reporting. Almost instantly, the largely theoretical construction of the genesis of this outbreak became its de facto origin story. Within weeks of it being released it became imprinted in the minds of the media and the general public as a true accounting of events and a central part of the narrative of the Stanley Virus’s spread.

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If the story I just recounted seems familiar, it’s probably because it is a reimagining of the scientific research and media response that characterized the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Up until recently, I had naively assumed that the narrative surrounding the origins of the Ebola outbreak in the region and the reporting being done on the ground was objective and grounded in fact. At least, I did until I picked up the book, The Ebola Outbreak In West Africa by a Sierra Leonean journalist and political activist Chernoh Alpha M. Bah. This book is, to my knowledge the first intensive, indigenous account of the Ebola crisis in West Africa and it is simply eye opening.

To be completely honest, there were a few moments in the opening pages of this book were I was tempted to put it away on the shelf because his perspective of the outbreak was so against the grain of what I knew up to that point, that it seemed to border on the fantastical. However, as I kept reading, it began to dawn on me that it was Bah who was grounded in reality and that, by and large, it was the western narrative of the epidemic’s origins and the causes of its unprecedented spread that were suspect.

Whether implicitly or explicitly, Western society has a tendency to marginalize the African continent and portray its people as somehow backward or constitutionally incapable of grasping the tenets of sound governance and economic development exercised by “developed nations”. Of the 34 developed nations listed in the CIA Factbook—which as a category are essentially an extension of what were known during the Cold War era as First World nations—all but 4 of them could be categorized as card-carrying members of Western Civilization, with the only African nation included being South Africa, a country that only gained independence from Western/white minority rule a little over 20 years ago. Combine this de facto classification of Africa as a land of states struggling to catch up to modernity with the legacies of Western colonialism and still extant paternalistic racism that still categorize much of the West’s view of Africa and what you get is a general Western attitude that treats Africa as the world’s newly pubescent child—a still developing entity that’s incapable of supporting itself without the aid of its parents, but old enough to earn their keep by mowing the grass (providing the West with military access) and splitting the paychecks from their part-time job to help pay rent (allowing Western and Chinese corporations to exploit their valuable natural resources for pennies on the dollar).

Now, the reason why I went through the trouble of creating that elaborate comparison to the Ebola outbreak with the fictional Stanley Virus is to try and remove some of the colonialist filters and ingrained biases we as Westerners have against the African continent. My hope is that by juxtaposing the particulars of the situation in West Africa with a similar hypothetical crisis in the United States, many in the West—Americans in particular—can better understand some of ways in which our perspective as westerners has undermined our understanding of the Ebola outbreak.

Let’s begin with location. In the story I presented at the beginning of this article, I pointed out that the fictional lead researcher had experience dealing with the Stanley Virus when it broke out in small clusters in Oregon and Washington State and was using that experience as his rubric for investigating the outbreak in West Virginia. Any American with a rudimentary grasp of his or her country’s geography will know that the Pacific Northwest is a long ways away from Appalachia and that, while there are similarities between them, the two regions have two very different ecologies. The distribution of the population, the climate and the wildlife native to the Cascade Range is not interchangeable with that of the Appalachian mountains.

Similarly, the Central African region where researchers had studied prior Ebola outbreaks isn’t terribly similar to the area where the West African Ebola outbreak struck. It is about 2,260 miles as the crow flies from Yambuku, where the largest Central African Ebola outbreak took place in 1976, to Meliandou, the village in Guinea where Fabian Leendertz and the researchers from the Robert Koch Institute in Germany believe the West African Ebola outbreak began. For comparison’s sake, 2,260 miles is roughly the distance from the town of Eckman, West Virginia to the Pacific coastal town of Astoria, Oregon.

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The village of Meliandou in Southern Guinea. Researchers believe the West African Ebola epidemic began here.

Beyond their physical difference from each other, the topography, ecology and the amount of human development surrounding the two villages was pretty divergent as well. Meliandou, is a small village of about 30 or so homes that is surrounded primarily by farmland and plantations and the like, which is only about 8 miles away from the large city of Gueckedou. Meanwhile, Yambuku is slightly bigger village located in the largely undeveloped rainforests of the Congo Basin, surrounded by only a handful of similarly sized towns. As one might expect, transplanting a template for the transmission of a virus from a village in the heart of the Central African rainforest to a farming village on the outskirts of a large, West African city is bound to be fraught with complications, particularly around the mode of animal-to-human transmission.

In the story, I pointed out that, unlike the outbreak of the Stanley virus in the Pacific Northwest, which had been started via transmission from mountain lions and other large cats in the region as was indicated by a sharp decline in populations of large mammals, the area around the Stanley outbreak in West Virginia saw no such die off in similarly large mammals indigenous to the area. This mimics the situation regarding Ebola, as the major outbreaks in Central Africa were accompanied by large die offs of carnivorous wildlife, leading to increased contact between local hunters and the carcasses of potentially infected animals, particularly primates. However, when Western researchers came to Guinea to test out their hypothesis, they found that not only was there no severe decrease in carnivorous wildlife in the region, but that there may have been an increase in their populations recently.

With this lack of carnivorous population loss being the case, both the fictional and real-life researchers had to look elsewhere for their source of transmission. For Dr. Phan it meant squirrels and for Dr. Leendertz it meant bats. Dr. Leendertz and his team went into Guinea under the impression that the index case (patient zero) for the West African Ebola epidemic was a 2 year old boy in Meliandou who had contracted it from a fruit bat carrying the Ebola virus. Technically this is a possible scenario and I’m not disputing any contention that this might be the way in which the Ebola outbreak began. The only problem with this imagining of events is that Dr. Leendertz and his team came into West Africa with a hypothesis, found no concrete evidence to support that hypothesis, and then proceeded to publish a paper stating that their hypothesis is probably correct without sufficient proof and without exploring other plausible options.

In a vacuum, it makes perfect sense that a bat might have been responsible for the zoonotic transmission of Ebola. After all, bats have been shown to be able to survive direct injections of Ebola in captivity, have been found with Ebola antibodies and hints of active infections in the wild, and they are still hunted and consumed by the local populations. However, when the researchers came to Guinea and began testing out their hypothesis, it becomes pretty clear to anyone looking at the facts with a clear head that their theory is unsubstantiated.

To show this, I am going to list all of the things that Leendertz and the researchers from the Robert Koch Institute discovered in Guinea that support the assertion that the epidemic started with zoonotic transmission from a bat to a 2 year old child:

  • The adult residents of Meliandou do opportunistically hunt bats for the purposes of consumption as bushmeat.
  • There are a large number and assortment of bats in the area.
  • There is a large, burnt-out, hollow tree about 50 meters from the home of the index case, which once contained bats and was a place where children played.

That’s it. At no point in their paper do the researchers find any concrete links between the Ebola virus and the death of this child who supposedly set off a sequence of events that killed over 11,300 people. The researchers captured 88 bats in Meliandou and 81 from elsewhere in southeastern Guinea, belonging to at least 13 different species. None of them tested positive for Ebola antibodies. DNA fragments from ash and soil samples collected from the large tree where the child may have played were collected. 5 of the 11 samples contained DNA sequences that could be linked to a bat. None of the 11 had any traces of Ebola. Towards the end of their report, even the researchers themselves admit that they, “found no evidence of additional zoonotic transmission events stemming from the consumption of these bats.”

And yet, in the complete absence of causal evidence, Leendertz and his team conclude their paper by saying that the fact that bats had been known to survive experimental Ebola injections and that they themselves were able to capture bats that were not infected with Ebola in Meliandou, means that, “our findings support the idea that bats were the source of the current EVD [Ebola Virus Disease] epidemic in West Africa”, with their only concession to the possibility that their original hypothesis might have been wrong being a note to include insectivorous bats with fruit bats as plausible reservoirs for the virus going forward.

Now, let us go back to our hypothetical Stanley Virus example to see how this sort of reasoning resonates when it’s applied to areas and cultures that are more familiar to American eyes and ears. If someone were to tell you that scientists believed that a major viral epidemic was started because a 2 year old in West Virginia was playing with or near infected squirrels, despite the fact that the researchers found no evidence of any squirrels in the area being infected with the virus or of any other squirrel-to-human transmission, you would rightly be skeptical. Certain questions would probably enter your mind, like, if the researchers didn’t find any evidence of the virus in the squirrels, how can they say it was probably the way the child contracted it? Or, why were the researchers so sure that this kid was the first person to get infected? You might even ask, if folks have been living in the hills and hollows of Appalachia for hundreds of years, why is this the first time we’re hearing about an outbreak like this?

All of these are perfectly reasonable questions—questions that the researchers do not sufficiently explain and that the Western media left more or less unasked. Instead of doing their due diligence and examining the validity of the claims made by Leendertz and his team, the media largely stuck to trumpeting their findings as the one true origin story for the West Africa Ebola outbreak, occasionally deigning to throw in a few conditional “probably’s” and “likely’s” and “may have’s” into the mix, often as an afterthought.

Take, for example, this piece from the Los Angeles Times that was printed upon the release of the researcher’s findings titled, “Insect-eating bats, not fruit bats, sparked Ebola outbreak, study says”.From the title of the article—and that’s all a significant number of web readers will ever even bother to look at—it sounds as if a group of scientists went into their research believing that fruit bats were the cause of the Ebola outbreak, but wound up discovering that it was in fact insect-eating bats that were responsible, which is not at all what their research shows. The text of the article is pretty much a synopsis of the study, with the bulk of it being made up of quotes from the just-published report with no questioning of its findings.

This type of reporting wouldn’t haven’t been so bad had it just been the LA Times and handful of publications doing so, but this was pretty much the only Ebola origin story narrative put forth by almost the entirety of the Western press. Whether it was widely trusted public broadcast services like The BBC and PBS, print newspapers with large digital presences like The Telegraph and The Washington Post, or online news magazines and blogs like The Atlantic and Jezebel, the story was pretty much the same: report the Leendertz group’s findings completely at face value and don’t investigate the matter any further.

Had it not been for Chernoh Alpha M. Bah’s book, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought either, which leads me to wonder, why is it that Bah’s is the first detailed account I’ve come across from a journalist or scientist that is native to the West African country’s affected by Ebola? Beyond that, why is it that the focal point of our narratives about the Ebola outbreak almost always centered around Western NGOs, Western researchers, Western interventions and the infections or possible infections of Westerners? The answer, I believe, lies in Western society’s continued paternalism towards the African continent and our insistence on describing them as somehow primitive or backwards.

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A young child and her mother stand outside their home in Sierra Leone that was forcibly quarantined for Ebola by police. (AP Photo/ Michael Duff)

From this perspective, the unquestioned acceptance of the Leendertz group’s muddled findings makes perfect sense. The idea of West Africans hunting or playing with wild animals fits snugly within our collective conception of them as being less civilized or advanced than the West. And, this narrative of the tribalistic African at odds with Western progress hasn’t been contained solely within the origin story of Ebola, but has been a constant theme throughout the West’s coverage of all aspects of the epidemic. Our scientists and mass media have no problem providing extensive reportage and research that paints West African cultural practices and fears as the reason for the epidemic’s spread, but rarely do they try to look at the underlying and often rational causes that inform those practices and fears.

In The Ebola Outbreak In West Africa, Chernoh Alpha M. Bah goes into far greater detail than I have the time or knowledge to attempt regarding the foundation of social, cultural and political structures that allowed the 2014 Ebola outbreak to be so devastating. Whether it’s discussing legacies of colonialism, the role of pharmaceutical companies in often unethically using Africa as a testing ground for new drugs, or the interplay between Sierra Leone’s corrupt government and the efforts of occupying forces and NGOs in creating the Ebola crisis, Bah covers issues that I hadn’t considered in my own assessment of what was going in West Africa.

Am I in agreement with everything that Bah has to say in his book? Of course not. Do I believe that, despite the lack of concrete evidence in support of it, there is a real chance that zoonotic transmission from an Ebola infected bat to that Guinean toddler was how the epidemic began? I do indeed. Was there genuinely insightful and nuanced coverage of the Ebola epidemic in certain parts of the Western media? Yes, there was. However, much of the research and the reporting done on this crisis has been characterized by bias, unvalidated claims and a pretty serious case of tunnel vision. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that a group of researchers who specialize in zoonotic disease came to West Africa with a definite theory as to how a zoonotic transmission event between a bat and a young boy started the Ebola epidemic, nor is there anything wrong with the fact that they found no direct evidence for that theory being a reality. The wrong only comes in when those researchers write a paper filled with conclusions that aren’t justified by their findings and the media takes those findings and runs with them without checking out their validity or looking for other plausible explanations.

Looking back on the way the genesis of the West Africa Ebola crisis was researched and reported, I can’t help but recall one of my favorite lines from that fictive patron saint of deductive reasoning, Sherlock Holmes. “When you have eliminated the impossible,” he once remarked, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Unfortunately, when it came to the origins of Ebola, far too many scientists and journalists didn’t even bother looking for the impossible. They just found something that looked improbable and called it a day.

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