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Does the Ebola virus constitute an existential risk?

Posted: Mon, October 20, 2014 | By:

by Alexei Turchin

Recent CDC estimates put the amount of possible Ebola cases at around 1.4 million as of January 2015. This is just four months from now; however, they do not say what will happen one year from now based on their own, projective, logic.

If the current rate of transmission persists, with an exponential doubling time around 1 month, the human population will be infected to 2016. This will happen. There will be a thousand more cases in just 10 months…I’m being generous, or optimistic, here with the numbers: regardless, there will be a thousand more cases by the year’s end, and if there are 5000 cases by the middle of September 2014. It just grows exponentially from there: five million cases as of Sept 2015; 5 billion cases by Sept 2016, i.e. the total human population. At a 70 % mortality rate, only 2 billion people will survive, but the situation could be even worse if we take into account mutations of the virus and the consequences of a pandemic catastrophe.

There are a lot of very lethal viruses in the world, and Ebola is not the most lethal or most easy transmittable, but the main thing which makes me worry about it is the steadiness of its exponential infection curve.

Below is an image from Wikipedia:

The main stunning feature of it is that the curve is moving straight forward (small downward bump in May-June may be explained by the efforts of existing medical services in Africa to curb the epidemic before services had been overwhelmed). This exponential growth must be stopped, or humanity will face a global catastrophe, and it may start a downward spiral towards extinction;

moreover, some estimates suggest that pandemic doubling time is actually two weeks (because of underreporting of actual cases), so in five months, seven billion will be infected: total infection, by July 2015.

Read more here “Ebola cases doubling every two weeks in worst areas”.

These preliminary calculations show that risks of global catastrophe from Ebola should be under assessment.

Such catastrophes may not mean total human extinction, as only around 70% of people infected currently die from Ebola (and even less because we don’t know, or share, asymptomatic cases), but still, this means the end of the world as we know it. This virus is the first step towards the road of full extinction – see more below.

Some have said that Western countries are not under any risk because of their high quality medicine and sanitation, but success mostly depends on the way in which the virus mutates: this is a big unknown…Mutations of virus could lead to two bad things and one good. RNA viruses are known to mutate especially quick.

Bad viruses are airborne while the second one may take on many different forms of the virus. Good forms of the virus provide a milder form, which will dominate and provide immunity.

Risks of an evolving multi-pandemic

Let’s look first on the risk from many forms of the viruses. If the virus will mutate quickly, there will be many different strains of it, so it will ultimately create a multi-pandemic. (There are also many different strains of AIDS and TB, but they are rarely overlapping which may happen only when an entire population is exposed).

Some of the strains may became airborne, or have higher transmission rates, but the main risk from multi-pandemic is that it overcomes defenses provided by the natural variability of the human genome and immunity. (By the way, the human genome variability is very low because of the recent bottle neck in the history of our population. Any chimpanzee has more differentiation from another chimpanzee than human beings have between other human beings: Pygmies have more in common with Nordic blondes than chimps have with each other.

We are almost clones from the view point of genetic variability typical for natural populations.

The Human race is very unique – it has very large population but very small genetic diversity. It means that it is more susceptible to pandemics.

Also, a large homogenous population is ideal for breeding different strains of infection. There are no many natural examples of such large and homogeneous populations, in which exist high level of communication between all its parts (I mean global air travel).

Such populations of clones exist in the world of plants. Most of them are fine, but the population of one particular banana was completely wiped out by a specific rust (see more All bananas of this specie were clones: Now we eat different bananas.

My point is that a large homogenous population is an ideal breeding ground for a multi-pandemic.

If the genetic diversity of a pathogen is bigger than human diversity, than it could cause a near total extinction, and also, large and homogenous populations help breed such a diversity of pathogens feeding on the population.

Risks of airborne Ebola

If we speak about airborne Ebola, in some experiments, it shows an ability to be transferred via air from monkey to monkey, but the problem is that existing ways of transmission may be very effective only if virus could survive long enough in dirty pieces of shit and blood. Airborne viruses, like the flu, live a very short time in the air, and it makes it easy to defend against them. See more here:

Several citation for more information:

“The Ebola virus can survive for several days outside the body”.

“It is infectious as breathable 0.8 to 1.2-μm laboratory-generated droplets” (wiki)

“Also many of the greatest plagues mankind has ever known were not airborne: e.g. smallpox. A mutation that made ebola transmissible before the visible onset of clear symptoms (i.e during the early febrile strage) would be just as problematic as airborne transmission and make contact tracing very much more difficult” (from

Bottleneck in vaccine production

We could have many new vaccines and drugs for Ebola by 2015, but the bottleneck here is in production, which should be at the same level of possible potential victims: hundreds millions in 2015. (“Ebola Epidemic Outpacing Vaccine Production

Also, if virus mutate, it will make most drugs obsolete sooner than they will be developed, such as AIDS vaccines.

Problems with the response

Another problem is the lack of adequate responses from global authorities; they are half a year behind the situation. You can’t react to exponential threats “proportionally”. You must be several steps ahead.

Everything they do now should have been done half a year ago.

Unlimited exponential growth is a mark of potential global catastrophe: self-improving AI; nuclear chain reactions; self-replicating grey goo from nanobots; all examples are especially dangerous in a naïve environment. A large human population without immunity to Ebola, or any other Marburg style viruses, is fuel for exponential viral growth.

Direction of natural selection of Ebola virus

Ebola could evolve into a milder form as we may hope. Most pathogens do so only if it is favorable for transmission and such milder forms could also provide immunity. The Flu is most transmittable when it is mild: when someone goes out and coughs. Ebola is mostly transmittable only in hard cases when a person shits and bleeds uncontrollably, but it is also contagious from non-symptomatic people, so Ebola is not naturally selecting for mildness; it may do just the opposite. It may be selected for extreme and “fluid-like” dying.

Ebola as meme virus

Also Ebola seems to influence behavior zombie style, as late stage patients attack medical personal, run from quarantine or even bite someone—it happened in Nigeria and Liberia—the same can be said of rabies and toxoplasma.

Here we also should mention the meme aspect of the Ebola virus, which is the psychological stigma and fear associated with the disease. The fear has led to riots in Liberia, which additionally helped spread the virus. (See for example rumors that dead Ebola patients had resurrected

So Ebola is also mimetic hazard, and the fear of it prevents rational control of the epidemic: people flee it, destroy hospitals, or they live in denial of it.

Other Ebola risk factors:

Also, the Ebola virus has natural host in African bats, but if it spreads over the world, it could find new natural hosts and create new reservoirs in nature, such as mice.

Most survivors are alive because they got some medical care from relatives and hospitals, and most new victims are the same relatives and nurses. This means mortality of the pandemic will grow in its late stages. Public restrooms may become the main place of contagion; especially, if victims became contagious long before they fail ill.

Ebola has a very long incubation period, estimated up to 21 days, and it also circulates in the blood after the illness for up to seven weeks. Men could infect women with their sperm months after the illness. It requires a very long and impractical quarantine.

From global catastrophe to human extinction

If Ebola slaughters most of the human population, hundred of millions of people will still survive the pandemic itself (if it will not become multi-pandemic with many different strains of Ebola-like viruses).

It will end technological civilization as we know it, and it probably start the self-sustainable process of destruction, which is the consequent failure of different institutions and technologies as well as wars and general disorder. It may be a long term degradation process, which has its own logic and its bottom may be very far from now.

From a personal point of view, any global catastrophe which affects more than 50% of global population is also a personal catastrophe because it means personal death, or the death of most loves ones and relatives, and a bleak perspective of long term personal survival in nightmarish conditions. For such a person, the question of future human extinction will be remote and insignificant.

So what could and should be done to stop Ebola?

  1. 1. Investment in drug development: manufacture of existing drugs and vaccination for large pools of people as soon as possible;
  2. 2. Quarantine: tests on Ebola and the probable limitation of air travel; planes are naturally designed to help people infect each other and disseminate any virus all over the globe; closure of public places, like restaurants and schools; closure of all public restrooms; quarantine the most infected countries.
  3. 3. General sanitation: personal gloves and masks; UV-cleaning of everything.
  4. 4. Hope that the pandemic will naturally burn itself out in most the most affected countries. One of the hopes of preventing an Ebola pandemic is based on an idea that high transmission rates are based on extreme anti-sanitation and craziness in African countries. In developed countries, the transmission rate would be less than 1%, and the pandemic would die off, but if the virus remains in Africa, it could mutate there and remain a constant source of the virus for our planet (like AIDS does).

Alexey Turchin, Stop Existential Risks and Longevity Party




Was Ebola Behind the Black Death?

effective treatment of symptoms (e.g., supportive care to prevent dehydration) may reduce the fatality rate significantly.[80

A 2014 study found that nearly two thirds of cases of Ebola in Guinea are believed to be due to burial practices.[

Apocalyptic, mysterious plague killed millions of Native Americans

Could Ebla virus become airborne?

See also:

airborne transmission article

No one knows for certain how Ebola virus is transmitted from one person to the next. The virus has been found in the saliva, stool, breast milk, semen, and blood of infected persons. The virus has been found in the saliva, stool, breast milk, semen, and blood of infected persons.

Body fluids (e.g. vomit, diarrhea, blood, and saliva) can result in the inhalable aerosol particles in the immediate vicinity of an infected person. Coughing was identified among some cases in a 1995 outbreak in Kikwit, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Coughs are widely known to emit viruses in respirable particles. Actual vomiting produces an aerosol and has been implicated in airborne transmission of gastrointestinal viruses. Regarding diarrhea, toilet flushing emits a pathogen-laden aerosol that disperses in the air.

Asimpomatic cases in humans


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