Updated: Jun 27, 2020
By Michelle Jung, Communications Editor
When you hear the words “epidemic” or “outbreak,” Ebola is probably the first thing that comes to mind. This is because it is the most recent viral outbreak officially declared by the World Health Organization (WHO), and since then, the media has ceaselessly struck fear into the hearts of people throughout the world, with the threat of Ebola crossing international borders. Of 11 people treated for Ebola in the United States during the West African Ebola outbreak (2014-2016), only two died because treatment was readily available.
Ebola virus is classified as a Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) virus (microbes in a BSL-4 are incredibly dangerous, posing a threat of airborne transmission, and infections caused by these microbes are frequently fatal without a treatment or vaccine) alongside both the Marburg and Lassa Viruses. However, you never see the Marburg or Lassa Virus on news headlines: why not? There have been outbreaks of both of these viruses in the 21st century, so why aren’t people more interested in researching this virus?
Media plays a big role in determining what antiviral labs and companies research. During the Ebola outbreak, for example, many researchers were incredibly invested in developing a vaccine or cure for Ebola. The popular push for a remedy permeated even the adolescent population: many students participating in science fairs were interested in treating Ebola or detecting it at an early stage. This raises the question as to why society took such an interest in Ebola. In reality, the answer is simple — people researching Ebola got far more recognition from media compared to those who were researching other BSL-4 viruses.
In addition to the severity of the outbreak, media tends to misrepresent the necessity of scientific research for less popular viruses. For example, unlicensed Ebola and Marburg vaccines exist, while Lassa virus, on the other hand, has no viable vaccine or medicinal therapy. Lassa virus is just as lethal as its viral counterparts, but is less well known than Ebola; thus, research for Lassa virus is highly unpopular.
As a matter of fact, research for arenaviruses in general is underappreciated. Arenaviruses are hemorrhagic fever viruses that are transmitted from rodents to humans, causing organs to bleed internally and the immune system to either suppress an immune response or overreact. Arenaviruses can be split into two groups: New and Old World. New World viruses predominantly affect people who live in the Americas, while Old World viruses tend to affect those from Africa. New and Old World viruses like Lassa affect a more diverse population than Ebola does, yet, according to American media coverage, it appears as though one single virus has inflicted more damage than a whole family of similarly lethal viruses.
I acknowledge that Ebola is one of the most dangerous diseases in the world; however, this does not diminish the fact that there are other viruses that are just as fatal that have yet to be researched. Lassa virus may not have killed as many people as Ebola, but with such little research being conducted on Lassa, it’s likely that the number of cases and deaths will increase.