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Ebola disease: the result of the Fall

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wikiepedia.org Ebola-virus
Ebola virus

First published: 25 October 2014; Last update 21 December 2020

For the last year or so, a deadly epidemic has ravaged West Africa. The culprit is the Ebola virus (genus Ebolavirus), named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre). This causes a high-grade fever accompanied by abnormal bleeding, both internal and external—hence the term ‘viral hemorrhagic fever’—plus other nasty things like diarrhea and vomiting.

The resulting loss of blood and accompanying organ failure means the disease is very dangerous—a 70.8% case fatality rate.1 So in Africa, it has claimed over 4,000 victims,2 and it’s estimated that the total death toll will reach over 20,000.1 Recently Ebola claimed a fatality in the USA, as well as infecting nurses at two modern hospitals in the USA and Spain.

The disease is highly contagious, i.e. spread through bodily contact, in particular with body fluids. However, it is not as transmissible as many better-known diseases, in that one Ebola-infected person infects on average only two people—in technical terms, R0 (‘R-nought’) = 2. By comparison, for mumps, R0 = 10, and measles has an R0 of 18 around unvaccinated people (when most people are vaccinated, R0 approaches 0).3

What is Ebola virus?

Ebola virus is classified as a filovirus (family Filoviridae), or thread-shaped virus. Unlike bacteria, viruses are non-living entities, because they can’t reproduce on their own, but need the copying machinery of more complex cells. Viruses are so tiny that they can be seen only by electron microscopes. [UPDATE 10 February 2016: But see Pandoraviruses: a Pandora’s Box of trouble for evolution.]

Ebola viruses don’t use DNA as their information storage material, but the related molecule RNA. RNA is about 100 times less stable than DNA, because its sugar ‘backbones’ are more susceptible to attack.4 And DNA is very unstable chemically, thus a fortiori how much more is RNA; so how preposterous is it to think that life began in an ‘RNA world’?5 DNA researchers often need to store it in liquid nitrogen, at about –200°C, and even that frigid temperature doesn’t entirely stop breakdown. A recent paper on DNA stability estimates that, even when preserved in bone, it would be completely disintegrated in 22,000 years at 25°C, 131,000 years at 15°C, 882,000 years at 5°C; and 6.83 million years at –5°C6—thus finding dinosaur DNA in dinosaur bones is disproof of the millions-of-years dogma.

So what is the advantage of the virus using such an unstable genetic material? RNA, unlike DNA, can be translated directly into a protein via the ribosome; DNA must be transcribed into RNA first (see animation). The Ebola RNA is ‘negative sense’, just like that of the influenza virus, meaning that it’s in the opposite direction to the strand that must be translated into protein. So it must carry around the enzyme RNA polymerase to copy the ‘positive sense’ strand from the negative sense. The virus’s genetic information is minuscule compared to that of truly living organisms—it has only about 19,000 genetic ‘letters’, while the tiniest bacteria, the Mycoplasmas, have about 600,000 letters, and humans have 3 billion. The virus’s genome codes for only eight proteins, while that of Mycoplasmas codes for almost 500.

How DNA is transcribed into mRNA with RNA polymerase, then translated into a protein in the ribosome with tRNA ‘adaptor’ molecules. This protein is then escorted by chaperones into a chaperonin so it folds correctly. All this machinery is itself encoded in the DNA, but the DNA can’t be read without this decoding machinery—a vicious circle, or chicken-and-egg problem. Furthermore, most of these processes use energy, supplied by ATP, produced by the motor ATP synthase (right). But the ATP synthase motor can’t be produced without instructions in the DNA, read by decoding machinery using ATP… a three-way circle, or perhaps an egg-nymph-grasshopper problem.

Why would God make viruses?

wikipedia.org Lynn-Margulis
Lynn Margulis (1938–2011)

Many viruses have amazing hallmarks of design, such as a powerful electric motor to wind up their DNA (for the ‘normal’ viruses that use DNA).7,8 This points to a Master Designer. However, since God’s finished creation was ‘very good’, why would He create disease germs?

The basic answer is that they were not disease-causing before the Fall, but had beneficial functions. Also, our immune system has suffered the effects of the Curse, so no longer works as well. Note that the immune system would have played an important role even before the Fall in distinguishing ‘self’ from ‘non-self’.

We have previously noted that many parasites are genetically depleted compared to free-living equivalents that can exist without being parasites—see articles under How does biblical Christianity explain the origin of poisons, and pathogenic bacteria and viruses? The leprosy germ is a good example. The form that causes disease, Mycobacterium leprae, has lost more than 2000 genes, about a quarter of its total genome.9 And the famous evolutionist Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) pointed out:

“Both the treponema that cause syphilis and the borrelia that cause Lyme disease contain only a fifth of the genes they need to live on their own. Related spirochetes that can live outside by themselves need 5,000 genes, whereas the spirochetes of those two diseases have only 1,000 genes in their bodies. The 4,000 missing gene products needed for bacterial growth can be supplied by wet, warm human tissue. This is why both the Lyme disease borrelia and syphilis treponema are symbionts—they require another body to survive.”

The same principle applies to viruses: the most harmful viruses seem to have devolved, e.g. the most pathogenic HIV strains are also the least fit (they don’t survive as well as less virulent strains).10 Also, a virus that immobilizes then kills quickly as Ebola does is less ‘fit’ as far as reproductive success is concerned—confined or dead people don’t spread the virus as widely.

But what use could viruses have in a perfect world, since they must hijack a living creature’s reproductive machinery? Some clues to possible benign pre-Fall roles for viruses can be gleaned from functions they have even today. Viruses have a number of useful functions even now, including transporting genes among plants and animals, keeping soil fertile, keeping water clean and regulating gases in the atmosphere.11 They also have a role in killing cancer cells:

“Oncolytic (cancer-killing) viruses—such as adenovirus, vaccinia virus, measles virus, polio virus, herpes simplex virus, vesicular stomatisis virus and reovirus—preferentially infect cancer cells. This is mainly due to their specificity for the abnormal regulation displayed by cancer cells but not found in normal cells.” [10 secular references cited]12

In particular, Ebola virus seems to have a symbiotic relationship with fruit bats. Many papers have the obligatory evolutionary slant, but the actual evidence is that bats have more copies of genes that code for DNA repair machinery, and this may be due to a benign role of the virus. Bats benefit by almost never developing tumours, because the repair machinery would correct any damaged genes resulting in the uncontrolled cell reproduction of malignant cancer.13,14

Similarly, consider the deadly H1N1 influenza virus that caused the even more devastating Spanish Flu epidemic around the end of WW1. This killed at least 50 million, or about 3% of the world’s population, many of them young healthy adults. But the virus causes little or no illness in ducks, in which it is a benign symbiont.15,16

Treating Ebola: why and who?

One important biblical principle is: it’s a blessing to alleviate aspects of the Curse. That’s why Jesus healed sicknesses and disabilities, raised the dead, and praised the Good Samaritan for taking care of a badly beaten traveller. And He also berated some for not looking after the poor in Matt. 25:35–45, concluding by saying: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.

Similarly, biblically-based compassion for those afflicted by effects of the Curse (including man-caused evil) has motivated the founding of orphanages and hospitals, and the abolition of slavery. It’s no wonder that even atheists have acknowledged the beneficial effects of Christianity, one even declaring, “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God”.

Indeed, at the forefront at treating Ebola in Africa was missionary doctor Dr Kent Brantly of Samaritan’s Purse who contracted Ebola but survived after receiving treatment in Atlanta, US. Similarly, one soi-disant atheist, Brian Palmer, writing in a far-left publication, grudgingly admits that Christians are at the forefront at providing care for sick Africans, including Ebola victims:

“Like it or not, though, we are deeply reliant on missionary doctors and nurses. The 2008 ARHAP report found that in some sub-Saharan African countries 30 percent of health care facilities are run by religious entities.”

He previously had to admit that they are hardly doing this for personal gain:

“There’s one other big difference between missionaries and Western merchants: The missionaries don’t profit personally from their work. They are compensated very poorly, if at all. Many risk their lives. How many people would risk death to spread the gospel of Western consumer goods gratis?”

Palmer certainly didn’t delight in the fact of selfless Christians at the forefront: “I still don’t feel good about missionary medicine, even though I can’t fully articulate why.” However, he had to admit that the crumbling of medical care in Africa was possibly because of bigotry against missionary medicine. So he concluded:

“So until we’re finally ready to invest heavily in secular medicine for Africa, I suggest we stand aside and let God do His work.”17

In contrast, consistent evolutionists must believe that Ebola is just as much a result of evolution as man. Also, they have no basis for believing in the sanctity of innocent human life, made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26–28)—which was not lost at the Fall but just marred (Genesis 9:6, James 3:9). Consistent evolutionism has led to some chilling proposals. In 2006, evolutionary ecologist Eric Pianka presented a talk to the Texas Academy of Science at Lamar University in Beaumont, advocating a reduction of 90% of the human population, including via Ebola. Yet he received a standing ovation. The Christian social commentary and apologetic site The Pearcey Report writes that a supporter of Pianka’s attending the lecture posted the following comment:

“Dr. Pianka’s talk at the TAS meeting was mostly of the problems humans are causing as we rapidly proliferate around the globe … the bulk of his talk was that he’s waiting for the virus that will eventually arise and kill off 90% of human population. In fact, his hope, if you can call it that, is that the ebola virus which attacks humans currently (but only through blood transmission) will mutate with the ebola virus that attacks monkeys airborne to create an airborne ebola virus that attacks humans. He’s a radical thinker, that one! I mean, he’s basically advocating for the death of all but 10% of the current population! And at the risk of sounding just as radical, I think he’s right.”18,19

This just goes to show the misanthropic depths to which some people will sink once they deny the image of God in man. Of course, these population controllers seldom lead by example. The libertarian satirist P.J. O’Rourke noted:

“‘Malthus,’ says Vice President Al Gore in Earth in the Balance, ‘was right in predicting that the population would grow geometrically.’ Al, as the father of four children, should know.”20

Putting Ebola in perspective

Ebola is certainly very deadly. But in the West, so far, there is far more danger of dying from some diseases that are tragically underestimated. For example, influenza is very different from a bad cold, and will almost certainly result in lost work days. Even worse, thousands die in the USA every year from influenza complications: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate an average of 23,607 deaths per year from 1976 to 2007.21

The figures are more certain about the number of children who die from flu, because it has been a nationally notifiable condition since 2004: from the 2003–4 to the 2013–14 seasons, the average is about 113 pediatric (child) flu deaths per season.22

However, unlike Ebola at present, death from influenza is largely preventable. The CDC estimated that 90% of the children who died from influenza last season were not vaccinated. Further, about 40% of the deaths were in previously healthy children. So I and my family always get the ‘flu shot’ almost as soon as it becomes available every year. The reason, as we have explained, is that vaccines consist of dead disease-causing organisms or just parts of them, which gives our immune system ‘target practice’. So if and when it encounters the live pathogen, it is ready for it. So the germ has little chance to multiply to dangerous levels, so we usually don’t develop influenza (not the same as the bad cold many people call ‘the flu’) at all, or get it much less severely. And despite much anti-vax misinformation floating around, vaccines do not have parts of aborted babies, and the so-called poisons are well below a toxic level—the first rule of toxicology is: the dose makes the poison. For example, many people have no problem receiving botox (botulinum) injections for cosmetic purposes. Although this is a deadly toxin in large doses, the small amount used for botox injections poses no harm.

There are some side-effects and risks for vaccines, the side-effects and risks of non-vaccination—i.e. catching the disease—are usually far worse—influenza, as well as the dreaded diseases of yesteryear such as smallpox, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, measles, …. Thus while vaccines are not 100% ‘safe’, because nothing is, non-vaccination is far from safe as well. Of course, there might be some unwelcome side-effects and risks for vaccines. There are risks in driving to work in a car each morning at the hands of other drivers.

Also, at my suggestion, the CMI-US office, following the biblical principle of proper care for workers (Colossians 4:1, Ephesians 6:9), pays for ’flu shots for all employees and their dependent family members, if they choose to obtain them. Our speakers when on ministry are at greater risk than otherwise through shaking dozens of hands of wellwishers at ministry events. We should have a duty of care not to bring the ’flu back to the office to the rest of the staff etc.23

Why the Ebola virus is so deadly

It is not the virus that directly causes the infamous bleeding. Yes, the virus attacks different organs as well as the immune system, but the most serious problem is a severe over-reaction by our own immune system, called a cytokine storm. This causes blood clotting in all the wrong places, called disseminated intravascular coagulation,24 which damages organs such as the liver. Also, this uses up all the blood clotting factors, meaning that clots won’t form where they should, resulting in uncontrollable bleeding.25,26 It’s notable that the deadliest epidemic of Ebola’s fellow negative-sense–RNA virus influenza also caused cytokine storms. This is why the pandemic killed so many previously healthy people—they had the strongest immune systems, and these were turned against them. In the case of influenza, the immune system severely inflamed the patient’s lungs.27

At present there is no cure or vaccine for Ebola. Treatment involves rehydration, pain relief, and pro-coagulants to control bleeding. Also, there is blood transfusion to replace loss, as well as blood plasma from Ebola survivors containing antibodies that could fight the disease. Indeed, Dr Brantly was helped by a 14-year-old former patient’s transfusion, and he has since donated blood plasma to other sufferers.28

Update, 21 Dec 2020: Since this article was written, we interviewed a surgeon, Dr Debbie Eisenhut, who has devoted her life to helping Ebola patients (see Evangelism in the Ebola epidemic). And while at the time of the article, there was no available vaccine, we are happy to report that there are now at least two approved at time of writing, and several more under development. Dr Eisenhut says that the main one is not only a very effective preventive, but can also push back against the disease itself, if given early enough after infection. In this, it is similar to Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine, which could prevent rabies in people bitten by rabid animals, thus already infected.

This article caused much controversy at the time with its advocacy of vaccination. Since then, we have also considerably developed a position on vaccines in general (CMI, vaccines, and vaccination). The more we research, the more pro-vaccination we become, and the weaker the anti-vaccination arguments look.

The year 2020 has been spectacularly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China. This has brought the issue of vaccination in to the forefront. CMI’s vaccination paper is constantly updated with new information, including on proposed vaccines, there is now a stand-alone paper on the new RNA vaccines in particular. These appear to be about 95% effective and very safe.

Because both Ebolaviruses and SARS-CoV-2 have arisen from benign bat viruses, we would expect some commonality in treatments for them. And the first approved vaccine for Ebola used the recombinant vaccine called rVSV-ZEBOV. This has been 95–100% effective.29 A number of proposed vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 are recombinant.30

The second currently approved vaccine for Ebola is a two-dose regimen,. The first priming dose is the Adeno-associated viral (AAV) vector vaccine Ad26.ZEBOV. The second booster dose is the Modified Vaccinia Virus Ankara – Bavarian Nordic (MVA-BN) Filo-vector. Now, the University of Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine trials for SARS-CoV-2 are using AAV technology.

If there is plenty of time, the ideal would be mass-vaccinating people in areas where Ebola is endemic. But under the exigency of a deadly virus or limited supplies, the most efficient method is ring vaccination. This means first vaccinating all those in contacted with a known infected person, the first ‘ring’; then contacts of the contacts, a second ring; then their contacts, and so on. That is, first vaccinate those with one degrees of separation from known carriers of the disease, then two degrees, and so on. One difficulty is accurate contact tracing. Ring vaccination has an honourable history in combatting outbreaks of diseases such as diphtheria, and was responsible for the final eradication of smallpox in the 1970s.

References and notes

  1. WHO Ebola Response Team, ‘Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa—The first 9 months of the epidemic and forward projections’, New England Journal of Medicine 371:1481–1495, 16 October 20142014, doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1411100. Return to text.
  2. Ebola Response Roadmap Update, World Health Organization, who.int/en, 10 October 2014. Return to text.
  3. Doucleff, M., No, Seriously, How Contagious Is Ebola?, npr.org, 2 October 2014. Return to text.
  4. The extra hydroxyl group provides a target for chemical attacks. Return to text.
  5. Many skeptics believe that life started with a similar molecule called RNA (ribonucleic acid). But this is even less stable than DNA, and so are its building blocks such as the sugar ribose. Evolutionist John Horgan admits, “But the ‘RNA-world’ hypothesis remains problematic. RNA and its components are difficult to synthesize under the best of circumstances, in a laboratory, let alone under plausible prebiotic conditions. … The RNA world is so dissatisfying that some frustrated scientists are resorting to much more far out—literally—speculation.” (Don’t tell the creationists, but scientists don’t have a clue how life began, Scientific American blogs, blogs.scientificamerican.com, 28 February 2011.) For those interested in chemistry, more chemical problems with ‘RNA World’ ideas can be found at creation.com/rna. Return to text.
  6. Allentoft, M.E. et al., The half-life of DNA in bone: measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils, Proc. Royal Society B 279(1748):4724–4733,7 December 2012. Return to text.
  7. Fuller, D.N. et al., Single phage T4 DNA packaging motors exhibit large force generation, high velocity, and dynamic variability, PNAS 104(43):16868–16873, 23 October 2007. Return to text.
  8. Sarfati, J., Virus has powerful mini-motor to pack up its DNA, J. Creation 22(1):15–16, 2008. See also creation.com/virusmotor. Return to text.
  9. Eiglmeier, K. et al., The decaying genome of Mycobacterium leprae, Lepr. Rev., 72:387–398, 2001. Return to text.
  10. Wodarz, D. and Levy, D.N., Human immunodeficiency virus evolution towards reduced replicative fitness in vivo and the development of AIDS, Proc. Royal Soc. B, 31 July 2007; correction doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.3001, 22 December 2008. Return to text.
  11. See also Bergman, J., Did God make pathogenic viruses? J. Creation 13(1):115–125, 1999, creation.com/viruses. Return to text.
  12. Kim, M., Biological view of viruses: creation vs evolution, J. Creation 20(3):12–13, 2006. Return to text.
  13. Drake, N., Why bats are such good hosts for ebola and other deadly diseases, Wired Science, wired.com, 15 October 2014. Return to text.
  14. Guojie Zhang et al., Comparative Analysis of Bat Genomes Provides Insight into the Evolution of Flight and Immunity, Science 339(6118):456–460, 25 January 2013 | doi: 10.1126/science.1230835. Return to text.
  15. Barber, M.R. et al., Association of RIG-I with innate immunity of ducks to influenza, PNAS 107(13):5913–5918, 2010 | doi: 10.1073/pnas.1001755107. Return to text.
  16. Carter, R.W., and Sanford, J.C., A new look at an old virus: mutation accumulation in the human H1N1 influenza virus since 1918, Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling 9:42, 2012 | doi:10.1186/1742-4682-9-42. A key point is that because of the high reproductive rate and the documented phenomenon of genetic entropy, the influenza virus is degenerating rapidly by accumulating 14.4 new mutations per year. Ebola is likely accumulating 12 pa. It seems that when they leave their proper winged hosts and infect humans, they run out of control and go downhill rapidly because of mutation accumulation, which will lead to their extinction. See also Genetic entropy and simple organisms. Return to text.
  17. Palmer, B., In Medicine We Trust: Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?, slate.com, 2 October 2014. Return to text.
  18. Pearcey, R., Dr ‘Doom’ Pianka Speaks, pearceyreport.com, 6 April 2006. Return to text.
  19. Wieland, C., Doomsday Glee: An astonishing lecture makes sense if you understand the evolutionary framework, creation.com/doomsday-glee, 21 April 2006. Return to text.
  20. O’Rourke, P.J., All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty, p. 25, 1995. Return to text.
  21. This was variable: low of 3,349 deaths during the 1986-87 flu season to a high of 48,614 in 2003-04, Estimates of deaths associated with seasonal influenza—United States, 1976–2007, cdc.gov, 27 August 2010. Return to text.
  22. Ianelli, V., Deaths from flu, 2013-2014 flu season, pediatrics.about.com, 14 October 2014. Return to text.
  23. Actually, even apart from the principle of care, it has a sound economic basis: just one or two employees off work for a week would cost the ministry (and thus its supporters) many times more than the cost of flu shots for all. Return to text.
  24. What Is Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation?, US Department of Health and Human Services, nhlbi.nih.gov, accessed 16 October 2014. Return to text.
  25. Jahnke, A., Battling Ebola: how Ebola kills (Q&A with John Connor, researcher at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories), bu.edu/today, 5 August 2014. Return to text.
  26. Bushak, L., Ebola explained: what happens when one of the world’s deadliest viruses invades your immune system, medicaldaily.com, 7 August 2014. Return to text.
  27. Kash, J.C. et al., Genomic analysis of increased host immune and cell death responses induced by 1918 influenza virus, Nature 443(7111):578–581, 5 October 2008. Return to text.
  28. Lupkin, S., Why blood transfusions from ebola survivor Dr. Kent Brantly could help patients, abcnews.go.com, 14 October 2014. Return to text.
  29. Henao-Restrepo, A.M. et al., Efficacy and effectiveness of an rVSV-vectored vaccine in preventing Ebola virus disease: final results from the Guinea ring vaccination, open-label, cluster-randomised trial (Ebola Ça Suffit!), Lancet 389(10068):505–518, 4 Feb 2017 | doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)32621-6. Return to text.
  30. Yadav, T. et al., Recombinant vaccines for COVID-19, Human vaccines & immunotherapeutics, 24 Nov 2020. Return to text.

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