“It is guided by the science, that’s what our experts say,” White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest said on Wednesday when asked if the White House still believes the risk of an Ebola outbreak in the United States is low. “Our experts say that because the way that Ebola is transmitted is very clear, and it something that is not likely to happen in the United States.”
“Ebola’s not like the flu. Ebola is not transmitted through the air,” he added.
That’s comforting, but the public can be excused for reserving judgment. The experts’ ability to predict how or even whether this disease would spread into the United States has been wanting.
It might not be surprising to learn that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, an administration figure who has regularly diverged publicly from the president, is not as firm in the conviction that the Ebola epidemic would not worsen in the coming weeks.
“I’ve been worried about Ebola globally for about 90 days, and I have had some on my staff that were probably a little more worried than I was even a few weeks or months before that,” Dempsey told CNN.
He noted that the “experts” are not as uniformly sure that Ebola’s current transmission pathways are as immutable as the White House would like to suggest.
“If you bring two doctors who happen to have that specialty into a room, one will say ‘No, it will never become airborne, but it could mutate so it would be harder to discover,’” Dempsey continued. “Another doctor will say, ‘If it continues to mutate at the rate it’s mutating, and we go from 20,000 infected to 100,000, the population might allow it to mutate and become airborne, and then it will be a serious problem.’”
“I don’t know who is right,” the general concluded. “I don’t want to take that chance.”
There is something almost comforting about this admission of uncertainty from Dempsey, considering the firm conviction with which experts have insisted Ebola would be contained outside the United States only to be proven wrong.
The World Health Organization, for their part, lends no credence to the notion that Ebola could transform into an airborne pathogen.
“Speculation that Ebola virus disease might mutate into a form that could easily spread among humans through the air is just that: speculation, unsubstantiated by any evidence,” a WHO statement released last week read.
The vast majority of experts agree, noting that viral transmission routes almost never change as a result of mutation. Not every scientist is, however, so certain.
“It’s frightening to look at how much this virus mutated within just three weeks,” Harvard University associate professor Dr. Pardis Sabeti told CNN recently.
“Do you understand how the public is becoming less confident possibly even more alarmed as this story plays out?” CBS reporter Major Garrett asked Earnest after noting that the White House’s reliance on “experts” has not served them or the public well.
“People should continue to be confident in the responses organized by the government in reaction to this specific situation,” Earnest urged. “People should take solace in the fact that we know how Ebola is transmitted.”