Searching for the source of Ebola: the elusive factors driving its spillover into humans during the West African outbreak of 2013–2016

Kock, R A and Begovoeva, M and Ansumana, R and Suluku, R (2019) Searching for the source of Ebola: the elusive factors driving its spillover into humans during the West African outbreak of 2013–2016. OIE Scientific and Technical Review, 38 (1). pp. 113-117.

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The natural ecology of Ebola virus infection remains enigmatic. No clear reservoir species has been confirmed but there is evidence of infection in a wide spectrum of mammals, including humans, non-human primates, domestic and wild ungulates and a variety of bat species, both frugivorous and insectivorous. Humans and most other species examined appear to be spillover hosts and suffer disease. Bats are the exception and are tolerant to infection in some laboratory studies. Some surveys show a low prevalence of antibodies against Zaire Ebola virus (ZEBOV) strains in bats during human outbreaks and inter-epidemic periods, and this order of mammals is considered to be the likely reservoir for the virus. Other putative sources include insects but this hypothesis is unproven in the field or laboratory. Moreover, some potential sources, such as aquatic species, have yet to be investigated. There are a number of environmental, human behavioural and ecological risk factors proposed with respect to spillover and spread. In the West African outbreak, which was unprecedented in scale and geographic spread, the source of the spillover remains unproven, although an association exists between the proposed index case and a colony of insectivorous bats. In all but a few Ebola virus disease events, spillover has only been superficially investigated and this was also the case in the West African epidemic. The authors suggest that, to address risks at the human–animal–environmental interface, using a One Health approach, more effort is needed to investigate spillover factors at the time of a ZEBOV epidemic, in addition to conducting inter-epidemic surveys in peridomestic environments. The true prevalence of ZEBOV infection in any species of bats remains unknown. Large-scale, expensive, non-randomised surveys, with low sampling numbers per species, are unlikely to provide evidence for Ebola virus reservoirs or to improve our epidemiological understanding.

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