The largest outbreak of Ebola virus in history afflicted West Africa in 2014, claiming more than 11,000 lives in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. While western scientists and mainstream media have widely reported the “origin story” of the outbreak as a two-year old boy in Guinea playing in a bat-infested tree stump, independent evidence and phylogenetic analysis cast doubt on the established narrative.
The unresolved debate over a possible lab origin of COVID-19 has revived interest in the origins of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, including new reports:
This fact sheet is largely based on the pioneering work of journalists and scientists investigating the origins of the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
The established narrative reported by global media
In 2014, media outlets (such as the Wall Street Journal, BBC, The Atlantic) reported that Emile Ouamouno, a two-year old boy from Meliandou, Guinea, was patient zero of the Ebola virus outbreak. These reports were based on a paper published by Fabian Leendertz and his team at the Robert Koch Institute in Germany. According to this narrative, Emile Ouamouno became infected with Ebola virus while playing with, or perhaps hunting, bats in a tree stump. The authors believe that the boy spread the virus to his family, sparking the epidemic. This is still the most widely accepted 2014 Ebola origin story today – the CDC, WHO, among many others, describe the origin this way.
Key claims by Leendertz:
- Emile Ouamouno died on December 6, 2013, with symptoms consistent with Cholera, Lassa fever, Malaria, and Ebola.
- “Fruit bat hunting and butchering are common activities in southern Guinea, therefore facilitating direct human contact.”
- There was a hollow tree in the village of Meliandou that children played with, which housed a colony of free-tailed bats. Emile might have played there.
- Free-tailed bats were suggested as a source for the first Sudan Ebola virus outbreaks.
EMBO Molecular Medicine. Investigating the zoonotic origin of the West African Ebola epidemic. Fabian Leendertz et al. December 30, 2014. DOI: https://doi.org/10.15252/emmm.201404792
The Atlantic. The Beautiful Tree, the Bats, and the Boy Who Brought Ebola. By Nicholas St. Fleur. December 31, 2014.
The Independent. Ebola outbreak: Two-year-old boy from tiny Guinea village was first to be infected after playing with bats in tree stump. By Lizzie Dearden. December 30, 2014.
BBC News. First Ebola boy likely infected by playing in bat tree. By Michelle Roberts. December 30, 2014.
Independent evidence against a Guinean origin
Chernoh Bah, an independent journalist and historian from Sierra Leone, reports errors in the established narrative identified through his interviews with Emile’s father and local health workers in Meliandou. He highlights the lack of empirical data supporting Leendertz’s conclusions, as well as results in the study that go against the presence of Ebola in Meliandou at the time. Bah’s findings are summarized in part and extended by Sam Husseini, journalist, and Jonathan Latham, virologist, in their recent article.
- The Leendertz investigation detected no Ebola in the bats they sampled in the vicinity of Meliandou.
- The investigation did not detect Ebola in other animals in the area.
- The investigation found no evidence of the decline in mammalian species in the region typical of Zaire Ebola outbreaks.
- There is no clinical evidence that Emile or his immediate contacts had Ebola infections, as no blood or other samples were ever taken from any of these suspected cases.
- There is no clear evidence that Emile had contact with the hollow tree or with bats.
- Emile was reported to have been two years old, but he was 18 months old at the time. Relatives say he was too small to play on his own or to eat bats, and that he was always with his mother.
- Emile connects to the first proven Ebola cases only via epidemiological links that the Leendertz team acknowledges “are not well established.”
- Widely shared prejudice that stigmatizes African cultural behavior facilitated the mainstream media’s acceptance of a study with no clinical evidence.
Chernoh Bah. The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa: Corporate Gangsters, Multinationals, and Rogue Politicians. Philadelphia: Africanist Press, 2015.
Chernoh Bah. In “Chernoh Bah on Possible Lab Origin of the 2014 Ebola Outbreak Interview conducted by Sam Husseini”. January 10, 2023. Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GK8gTUUnRYM&t=1s
Independent Science News. Did West Africa’s Ebola Outbreak of 2014 Have a Lab Origin? By Sam Husseini and Jonathan Latham. October 25, 2022 (Disclosure: Latham is a donor to U.S. Right to Know).
“Leendertz deliberately and scornfully transformed the village of Meliandou and the family of Emile Ouamouno into global news items and objects of scientific theorizations without any clinical data that conclusively supported his conclusion.” (Chernoh Bah, The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa)
Evidence in support of a Sierra Leonean origin
Several first-hand accounts and reports, as well as a new phylogenetic analysis of the Ebola outbreak, suggest a hidden and widespread Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone before authorities officially recognized it. In particular, investigators like Bah, Husseini and Latham highlight a report by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).
- When Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) arrived in Guinea, the outbreak did not resemble a recent one with a simple epicenter. Some cases appeared to have originated in Sierra Leone and traveled across the border, according to on-the-ground investigations.
- When MSF arrived in Sierra Leone, they found the outbreak was much more widespread than reflected in officially reported case numbers.
- WHO emails uncovered by AP news allege underreporting and suppression of case numbers in Sierra Leone.
- Firsthand accounts confirm an outbreak in Sierra Leone that was much worse and originating earlier compared to the official reporting.
- A new phylogenetic analysis of the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak by virologist Jonathan Latham raises phylogenetic anomalies that arise from assigning the origin to Guinea. The new analysis finds that these anomalies can be resolved by the hypothesis that three of the recorded samples were of Sierra Leonean – not Guinean – origin.
Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). Ebola: Pushed to the limit and beyond. March 23, 2015.
Thomas Kratz. The Initial International Aid Response in Sierra Leone: A Viewpoint from the Field. In The Politics of Fear: Médecins sans Frontières and the West African Ebola Epidemic The Politics of Fear: Médecins sans Frontières and the West African Ebola Epidemic. By Michiel Hofman (ed.), Sokhieng Au (ed.). New York City: Oxford University Press, 2017.
The Africanist Press. Ebola, Corruption, and Border Security in West Africa. By Chernoh Bah. December 24, 2014.
In their article, Sam Husseini and Jonathan Latham offer evidence of additional assessments by the MSF, as well as a new phylogenetic analysis of the Ebola 2014 outbreak.
Questions about a U.S. government-supported lab in Kenema
A U.S.government-supported research laboratory in Kenema, Sierra Leone has come under scrutiny as a possible source of the epidemic’s origin. This laboratory has been operated by the U.S. nonprofit Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium (VHFC) since 2010.
- It is a mystery how Zaire Ebola, which requires direct contact with an infected host, traveled some 3,000 km from the Congo basin – where all prior outbreaks have occurred – without leaving any trace on its way.
- Genome sequencing and phylogenetic analysis have shown that the 2014 outbreak resulted from a single jump into humans (rather than multiple jumps common in animal-to-human spillover).
- Persistent rumors in West Africa linked the disease to the Kenema laboratory.
- There is a long colonial history of Western medicine and geopolitical interests using Africa as a site for medical experimentation.
- The VHFC had received tens of millions of dollars from the U.S. government to study viral hemorrhagic fevers, a biodefense interest that received a boon of funding following the anthrax attacks in 2001.
- Ebola was an established research interest for members of the VHFC leadership.
- A few months before the outbreak, the VHFC removed from its website an article about “major advances” in Ebola research.
- VHFC scientists have made conflicting statements about whether the Kenema lab conducted Ebola research. After years of denying that Ebola research was conducted at the lab, including a 2022 article by virologist Robert Garry that said “we did not have EBOV in our laboratory and therefore could not have released or engineered it,” virologist Kristian Andersen said in an interview that they “had been studying Ebola in Kenema in Sierra Leone.”
- Inspections by the WHO, CDC and MSF found many biosafety lapses at the Kenema lab, both in the Tulane-operated lab and in another lab operated by Metabiota, Inc., which shared the space. A researcher there is quoted to have said: “Certainly we have less safety, less containment, but we do have the ability to do a lot more in the same amount of time.”
- A senior advisor to the Sierra Leone Government accused the lab of misreporting cases and “messing up the whole region”.
- On August 7, 2014, in the midst of the outbreak, the U.S. government cut funding to the lab.
CBS News. Investigation: U.S. company bungled Ebola response. The Associated Press. March 7, 2016.
Reuters. U.S. anti-terror outpost tackles rat-borne virus. By Simon Akam. February 14, 2011.
Anthropological Quarterly. Emerging Disease or Emerging Diagnosis?: Lassa Fever and Ebola in Sierra Leone. Annie Wilkinson. January, 2017. DOI:10.1353/anq.2017.0023
Reuters. Exclusive: U.S. cuts resources for project involved in Ebola battle in Sierra Leone. By Toni Clarke. August 7, 2014.
Kristian Andersen. In Interview with Worobey, Andersen & Holmes: The Lab Leak. Interview conducted by Christopher Kavanagh and Matthew Browne on Decoding the Gurus. [Mention of studying Ebola in Kenema at 57:00]
Ryan Grim. In “Did Ebola Outbreak Result From A LAB LEAK? | Counter Points” [Video]. Youtube, uploaded by Breaking Points. March 19, 2023.
Ryan Grim and Chernoh Bah. In “Top Journalist Exposes Ebola Lab Leak Coverup | Counter Points” [Video]. Youtube, uploaded by Breaking Points. March 29, 2023.
Independent Science News. Did West Africa’s Ebola Outbreak of 2014 Have a Lab Origin? By Sam Husseini and Jonathan Latham. October 25, 2022.
Chernoh Bah. The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa: Corporate Gangsters, Multinationals, and Rogue Politicians. November 15, 2015.
There should be an investigation into the origins of the Ebola outbreak
U.S.-run laboratories working on dangerous pathogens are abundant around the world. Many have failed to conform to international biosafety standards. Accidents are common (see our page on accidents, leaks, containment failures, and transparency failures in biosafety facilities). In a recent Washington Post article, leading biosafety expert and virologist James Le Duc, who for years directed the maximum-containment national lab in Galveston, calls this a “global public health concern.”
“If you stand back and look at the big picture, the science is rapidly outpacing the policy and the guardrails,’’ he says.
U.S. funding for pathogen research is concentrated in West Africa, and the Mano River countries in particular. Reports from Kenema exemplify Le Duc’s concerns in this region receiving intense research interest. Work requiring the highest biosafety level facility in the U.S. was conducted in Kenema with far fewer protections, according to Reuters. Reports by the WHO, CDC, and MSF also show poor biosecurity at the lab. International health experts have accused Metabiota, the same company that conducted research at the Kenema lab, of serious biosafety breaches in other labs that it has operated.
These biosecurity lapses in themselves are serious public health concerns. Whether or not Ebola emerged from the Kenema lab in 2014, reviewing the conditions there is critical to evaluating the risks of Western countries “exporting” potentially pandemic-causing virological research to the Global South without the same level of caution exercised in their home countries.
The origin of the 2014 Ebola outbreak has gone unquestioned by the global media and Western academic establishment, despite suspicion and dissent from the local population. There is a brutal history of western corporate and military interests shaping exploitation in Africa in the form of medical science, according to Bah and many others. Bah gives the example of the scandal that followed the meningitis outbreak in northern Nigeria when Pfizer, the leading United States pharmaceutical company, was accused of clinical trials involving the uncertified use of a new antibiotic:
To test its new antibiotic trovafloxacin, known as Trovan, Pfizer gave one hundred children trovafloxacin while another hundred received the gold-standard anti-meningitis treatment ceftriaxone, a cephalosporin antibiotic. Pfizer gave the children a substantially reduced dose of the ceftriaxone relative to that approved by the U.S. FDA. Pfizer is said to have done this to skew the test in favor of its own drug. […] The Nigerian government called the clinical trial “an illegal use of an unregistered drug.” It alleged that participants and their families were not told that they were part of a trial nor that Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) was offering the standard treatment in another part of the same building. […] The survivors of the trial later pursued legal action against Pfizer in the U.S., [the government of Nigeria also later sued Pfizer] which subsequently led to an out of court US$75 million settlement that was subject to a confidentiality clause. Overall, the 1996-meningitis epidemic in northern Nigeria killed about twelve thousand people. These deaths were principally associated with the human subject research deliberately carried out by Pfizer on patients who had come to treatment centers with the hope of receiving genuine health care. (Chernoh Bah, The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa)
Incidents like this fill the history of Western medical science, and they do happen under the watch of Western governments and world-renowned scientific institutions. Experts warn that such events often go undebated in Western countries, and voices of suspicion are lost in the powerful corporate messaging. In other words, authentic public health work may involve questioning of western-run scientific institutions. If there is even a small possibility that the Ebola 2014 outbreak could have emerged from U.S.-funded research activities, we have a duty to investigate. The victims and their families deserve a full and complete investigation.