A few words to those who think George Will was right about Ebola going airborne through a sneeze

George Will on "Fox News Sunday" Oct. 19, 2014.
George Will on "Fox News Sunday" Oct. 19, 2014.

On Sunday, George Will scared a Fox audience by saying doctors now believe that Ebola can go airborne and spread through a sneeze or a cough.

This claim was immediately repudiated by Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, and later, by us. We rated it False.

But some people wrote that Will is correct, citing information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In an FAQ, the CDC says:

Unlike respiratory illnesses like measles or chickenpox, which can be transmitted by virus particles that remain suspended in the air after an infected person coughs or sneezes, Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with body fluids of a person who has symptoms of Ebola disease. Although coughing and sneezing are not common symptoms of Ebola, if a symptomatic patient with Ebola coughs or sneezes on someone, and saliva or mucus come into contact with that person’s eyes, nose or mouth, these fluids may transmit the disease.

That’s what expert researchers told us as well, but it makes Will’s claim no more accurate.

1.) Will is wrong to say doctors think Ebola can be spread through the air. As the CDC says, Ebola can only be spread through direct contact. Airborne suggests a sneeze or a cough a few plane rows away, or across the school room. That’s wrong and an overreach. According to Mount Sinai Hospital, Airborne transmission refers to situations where droplets or dust particles containing microorganisms can remain suspended in air for long periods of time. That’s not the case with Ebola.

2.) Sneezing and coughing are not symptoms of Ebola. While it’s possible for people who have Ebola to sneeze and cough, it’s important to note that neither is a symptom of the disease. Put another way, people with Ebola are no more likely to sneeze or cough than the next person, but Will doubled down on fears by implying they are.

3.) Will incorrectly cited research. To defend his point, Will cited commentary published by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. But one of the authors of the commentary told PunditFact that Will misapplied their work. Researchers were looking at people who already had the more severe symptoms of Ebola -- violent vomiting and diarrhea -- and suggested that Ebola can be transmitted in hospital rooms when droplets fly into the air.

We think it’s important to revisit the opinion of two researchers we cited in our original fact-check.

First, here’s Stephen Gire, a research scientist in the Sabeti Lab at Harvard University.

"If you were on a plane, and someone sneezed, you wouldn’t be at risk of getting infected unless you were sneezed on directly within close quarters, and that cough or sneeze transferred droplets into mucosal membranes," Gire said. "This is very unlikely scenario, but not out of the realm of possibility. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been sneezed on directly, and only one of those times was by someone I didn’t know."

And here’s Adam Lausing, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Michigan.

"If airborne transmission was an imminent concern, one would have to ask why no one in the United States has been infected except for two people who had close contact with the patient," Lausing said. "Importantly, none of the people who were living with the patient prior to his second trip to the Texas hospital have been infected."

Will claimed that doctors believe that we no longer need "to have direct contact, meaning with bodily fluids from someone," to get Ebola. That’s inaccurate.

Aaron Sharockman is the editor of PunditFact.com. Email asharockman@tamapabay.com.