Could terrorists use Ebola to attack the United States?

A colorized scanning electron micrograph of filamentous Ebola virus particles (in blue) budding from a infected cell (yellow-green). (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease)
A colorized scanning electron micrograph of filamentous Ebola virus particles (in blue) budding from a infected cell (yellow-green). (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease)

The possibility that terrorists could attack the United States using Ebola as a bioweapon -- the mutant spawn of Americans’ two biggest fears -- has been catnip for some politicians and commentators. For instance:

• Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., told the Blaze that Ebola "could be a place for terrorists to engage. We have limited our scope and are not respecting that we are living in unchartered time. They are unrelenting. If they could get infected with the virus, they could try to pass it on to others."

• Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., said, "Think about the job (contagious suicide bombers) could do, the harm they could inflict on the American people by bring this deadly disease into our cities, into schools, into our towns, and into our homes."

Washington Post conservative columnist Marc Thiessen wrote, "Think it can’t happen? If an Ebola-infected Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan, was able to fly to Dallas, what is to stop an Ebola-infected terrorist from doing the same? ... The nation is woefully unprepared for an Ebola outbreak, much less an Ebola attack."

When we contacted Pittenger, his office said, "The idea of terrorists using commercial jetliners as a weapon was once considered far-fetched. Our nation is in uncharted water with Ebola and is struggling to respond. Those who seek to destroy us undoubtedly look for opportunities to exploit our weaknesses. Congressman Pittenger’s goal is to make sure the administration has this threat on their radar and doesn’t leave America needlessly exposed."

Because the claims being made about Ebola as a weapon are speculative, we decided the Truth-O-Meter wouldn’t be able to rate them. Still, we thought it was worth taking a closer look at how realistic this concept actually is. The short answer: not very.

The two most likely scenarios for Ebola terrorism, according to Scientific American, are an Ebola-laced bomb that could spread the virus perhaps 30 feet, or a suicide mission in which an infected person tries to spread the virus to as many people as possible through bodily fluids.

Experts don’t dismiss these scenarios out of hand. But they also say Ebola likely ranks low on a list of tactics that might appeal to terrorists.

William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, said the biggest impact of an Ebola attack might not be in its death toll but rather in disruption.

"If you had one or two or three cases, it would satisfy one of the goals of a terrorist, which is to create a huge amount of hubbub and instill terror," Schaffner said. "People would be looking over their shoulders."

Thomas Fekete, section chief for infectious diseases at the Temple University School of Medicine, agreed that a suicide terrorist who inoculated himself with Ebola and tried to spread it is an "imaginable" scenario. But he added that "imaginable" is not the same thing as efficient, effective or likely.

"In its current form, Ebola would be an annoying but controllable weapon that would likely cause uproar, but not the kind of devastating mortality that is currently being seen in the poor and somewhat poorly governed areas of west Africa," Fekete said.

Here are some reasons why Ebola is a less-than-ideal weapon for terrorists:

Its properties don’t make it effective as a bioweapon. For starters, Ebola doesn’t spread very quickly. "In a population where everyone is at risk, each infected person will, on average, infect two more people," wrote Nicholas G. Evans, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist who specializes in security. "But because someone with Ebola is infectious only when she shows symptoms, we’ve got plenty of chances to clamp down on an outbreak in a country with a developed public health system."

And "catching" Ebola is much harder than contracting influenza or measles, since Ebola only spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids, not simply from the inhalation of germs through the air.

"The virus begins to die off very quickly" once it’s in the open air, Schaffner said. So simply leaving infectious fluids behind for people to touch or ingest isn’t a very effective tactic. "A terrorist organization would have to go door to door with bags of blood and vomit to infect even a handful of people -- and you’d probably notice it," Evans wrote.

The suicide-spreader scenario has its own set of problems. A terrorist would have to thread a needle -- they’d need to be far enough along to be contagious, but not so far along that they’re too weak to get out and infect people.

Ebola "is known, relatively difficult to pass between people, difficult to weaponize, and less threatening in a first-world society with advanced medical care and greater general knowledge about hygiene and viruses," said Lance Janda, a military historian at Cameron University. "There are biological agents that are far more deadly, far easier to weaponize, far harder to detect, and far harder to fight than Ebola. Something air or water-borne, for example, would be a much graver threat."

Any terrorist group that tried to spread it would face notable logistical challenges. The first challenge for a terrorist group is to figure out how to sicken themselves with the virus. It can be done, but it means overcoming some Rube Goldberg-style logistical obstacles.

"Say you’re coming from Iraq or Syria," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. "You’d have to fly to west Africa, then find someone who has Ebola and contract it from them."

That’s not as easy as it sounds, Gartenstein-Ross said, because medical officials are now quarantining Ebola patients. You’d have to slip through the barriers, convince the medical authorities and the local population that you have a reason to be there, hang around inconspicuously long enough to get infected by a contagious patient, exit the quarantine area without being stopped, and then get yourself on a flight to the United States without being stopped during a pre-boarding fever check.

Even then, you’d still be only half way to your goal. You’d still have to convince the U.S. authorities to let you in, even though you have just flown in from west Africa, a fact that now draws scrutiny, and despite the fact that you might already be on a terrorist watch list.

"Your travel pattern will not look very good -- even an unsophisticated security officer will be suspicious," Gartenstein-Ross said.

At that point, you will also have to hope you get sick -- and specifically from Ebola. If you simply caught the flu or malaria during your stay in west Africa, you’re not going to end up being a lethal terrorist.

All the while, you have to make sure that you don’t infect other members of your terrorist cell, something that could make your long, complicated, expensive attack a Pyrrhic victory.

"Biological terror could certainly create panic and fear, but it could also backfire if the agent spread back towards the people who sprang it on us," Janda said.

And even if you manage to avoid all these pitfalls, there’s no guarantee that the public will be convinced that you did it. Diseases can spread for any number of reasons. How can a terrorist prove it was their fault?

In sum, Gartenstein-Ross said, "there are better ways to kill Americans than to try to catch Ebola."