Where Did Ebola Come From?

Photo from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Guinea. Volunteers go door-to-door sharing information about the deadly virus.
Photo from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Guinea. Volunteers go door-to-door sharing information about the deadly virus. (Image credit: CDC/ Sally Ezra)

In some parts of Africa, myths that Ebola was brought to the regions by health care workers have hurt the ability of workers to respond to the outbreak. But where did Ebola really come from?

The true reservoir for Ebola — that is, where the virus hides when it's not causing outbreaks in people — is not known for sure, but experts say that bats are the likely source of the deadly virus.

"There's a strong circumstantial case, but we haven’t actually got a total smoking gun," said Derek Gatherer, a bioinformatics researcher at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. [2014 Ebola Outbreak: Full Coverage of the Viral Epidemic]

The first known human cases of Ebola occurred in 1976 during two simultaneous outbreaks in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which sickened more than 600 people, according to the World Health Organization.

Nearly 20 years later, in 2005, researchers looking for the reservoir of Ebola sampled more than 1,000 small animals in the Central African nations of Gabon and the Republic of the Congo, which have also experienced outbreaks of Ebola. They tested 679 bats, 222 birds and 129 small terrestrial vertebrates.

The only animals found to harbor the Ebola virus were bats, specifically, three species of fruit bat: The hammer-headed bat, Franquet's epauletted fruit bat, and the little collared fruit bat. [10 Deadly Diseases That Hopped Across Species]

At least two of these fruit bat species are also found in Guinea — which is where the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa began — so it's possible that these bats were sources for the outbreak, Gatherer told Live Science.

Researchers in Guinea are now sampling bats in that region to see if any test positive for Ebola, Gatherer said. The current outbreak has sickened more than 5,000 people, and of these, more than 2,600 people have died, according to the World Health Organization.

If bats are the source of the virus, one way people might become infected is by handling bats that are eaten for food, Gatherer said. For example, bat soup is a delicacy in the region.

Officials in Guinea took the step of banning the consumption and sale of bats in March, after the outbreak began, he said.

But it's not necessarily the eating itself that leads to Ebola infection —cooking would likely kill the virus, Gatherer said. Instead, it's the butchering of bats and handling of raw bat meat that's more risky, he said.

Still, it's not known for certain whether bats are the only reservoirs of the virus, or whether it is infections in bats that spilled over to people, Gatherer said.

A stronger case could be made for bats as the source of infection if researchers found the same genetic sequence for Ebola in people and in bats in the region, Gatherer said.

There is some evidence that, rather than being a virus that is always carried by bats, Ebola is actually causing an outbreak in bats — that is, it is being spread among bat populations.

By looking at the virus' genetic material, researchers have found that the same Ebola virus has been carried from bats in Central Africa to bats in West Africa over the past 10 years, Gatherer said.

The virus could have been carried by bats or by people, but if it was carried by people, researchers would have expected to see cases along the way, Gatherer said. "It's probably more likely that there's an epidemic going on in bats, but we can't be absolutely certain," Gatherer said.

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.