science commentary

Delaware Professor Resurrects Ebola Libel

An article in an African newspaper raises doubts about the sanity of a plant pathologist.

science commentary

E veryone is a bit panicky about Ebola these days. So it didn't help when an American plant pathologist named Cyril E. Broderick threw gasoline on the fire by writing an article on the front page of the September 9 issue of the Liberian Observer claiming that “scientists allege” that the U.S. Department of Defense purposely caused the outbreak.

As evidence, Broderick cited junk science writer Leonard Horowitz, who claimed in his book Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola – Nature, Accident, or Intentional? that the American medical establishment engineered the Ebola and AIDS viruses in an attempt to wipe out the black and homosexual populations.

Ebola virus
Fig. 1. Electron micrograph of Ebola virus, a member of the family Filoviridae, genus Filovirus (×46,200). (Source: Fundamental Virology, 3rd ed., B.N. Fields, D.M. Knipe, and P.M. Howley, eds.)

In my review of this book ... well, let's just say I didn't like it. Horowitz claimed, on the flimsiest of evidence, that the AIDS virus was created by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, where I had tenure and did research for several years. Horowitz's claims are easily debunked by anyone with a modicum of understanding of biology. Sadly, this appears to be in short supply these days at some East Coast universities. Anybody who cites Leonard Horowitz as an authority on viruses, as Broderick does, runs a big risk of being called a certifiable nut.

Broderick's online biography says he is an Associate Professor at the College of Agriculture and Related Sciences at Delaware State University (DESU). His article is a clear attempt to incite racial hatred in Africa. For a privileged academic, a beneficiary of Equal Opportunity, to play the “race card” in such a blatant way is incomprehensible.

Broderick called Horowitz's book an “excellent text” and expresses amazement that African leaders are not referring to it. It's a testament to their intelligence that they aren't. Broderick's conspiracy theory centers around Tekmira, the Canadian pharmaceutical company that has developed a treatment for Ebola. He writes:

“Reports narrate stories of the US Department of Defense (DoD) funding Ebola trials on humans, trials which started just weeks before the Ebola outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone. The reports continue and state that the DoD gave a contract worth $140 million dollars to Tekmira, a Canadian pharmaceutical company, to conduct Ebola research. This research work involved injecting and infusing healthy humans with the deadly ebola virus. Hence, the DoD is listed as a collaborator in a ‘First in Human’ Ebola clinical trial (NCT02041715, which started in January 2014 shortly before an Ebola epidemic was declared in West Africa in March.”

What Broderick wrote is factually incorrect. The idea that Tekmira, which is developing the treatment for Ebola, would inject live Ebola virus into volunteers, or that the U.S. FDA, which is the Health Authority in charge of this trial, would let them try, or that any sane person would volunteer for such a trial, is absurd. Anyone who has dealt with the FDA would recognize that Broderick's claim is so improbable that it raises serious questions about his intellectual judgment—nay, his very sanity.

The clinical trial to which he refers, NCT02041715, is easily found on the U.S. government's website: It is a Phase 1 trial, which means its purpose is to test the toxicity of the treatment in healthy volunteers. It does not involve injecting and infusing healthy humans with Ebola virus. It is a test of a drug called TKM-100802 in healthy volunteers, and was on a “clinical hold,” which the FDA routinely does when it decides more information is required. The drug, which has the generic name TKM Ebola, has recently been granted “Expanded Access” status. It is not a virus, not Ebola, and not an infectious agent. It is a special kind of RNA molecule called small interfering RNA, or siRNA, that blocks the virus from replicating, in a special lipid nanoparticle formulation which helps it cross the cell membrane and reach the nucleus.

This is very exciting cutting-edge stuff. If we can block virus replication using DNA technology, we will be able to wipe out many different kinds of viruses, including viruses that cause cancer. The technology might even work against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We will no longer be dependent on chemicals that may have undesirable side effects, and we will no longer be in danger of organisms that develop resistance to our current drugs.

The DoD funds this research because it has always been interested in protecting its soldiers against such deadly viruses. The U.S. Government's 1997 publication, Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare, which I reviewed here (a fabulous book, though a bit short on laughs), mentions Ebola as a possible threat to American soldiers. The DoD is also concerned that a returning soldier could inadvertently expose the general population to Ebola.

Many malicious rumors about the United States, including the AIDS rumor, were created by the KGB during the Cold War. One such rumor, repeated by former KGB officer Alexander Kouzminov in his book Biological Espionage: Special Operations of the Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Services in the West (reviewed here), was that the U.S. government created a Hantavirus in order to wipe out the Navajo Indians. This is another loony conspiracy theory that is on equally shaky ground. It's easily debunked, but the pattern is clear: incite racist feelings between ethnic groups in your enemy's country.

Broderick's article looks like another example of a long, sorry line of disinformation—not from the KGB this time, but from our own universities. Africans are rightly terrified of Ebola. Whether Broderick is insane, or just badly misinformed, or whether it's a simple case of “haters gotta hate,” we must not let his conspiracy theory take root. The ideas in the article are the worst kind of racism, and deserve to be debunked and ridiculed as many times as it takes before they come to be accepted as “common knowledge” like so many other false rumors (such as the one about J. Edgar Hoover wearing a fluffy boa, which many people assume to be true, or the one about Obama being the Antichrist, which we're still not 100% sure about).

Ebola is a very large and complicated virus. No individual could possibly create it, and no corporation or state would spread it because the publicity would be devastating if they got caught. To claim that this story has support from the scientific community is a lie. To create false rumors and spread them to a panicking and poorly educated population desperately searching for explanations is irresponsible. This is not an academic issue. This kind of lie gets people killed.

There are many things the U.S. government can be criticized for, but spreading Ebola is not one of them.

Update, Oct 3, 2014: Now Louis Farrakhan has made the same accusation, claiming that the virus is a “a race-targeting bioweapon.” We expect this from people like Farrakhan, but what does it say about the American educational system when a professor at a major university uses more sophisticated language to say the same thing? If you're a college professor, your loyalty should be to the truth. What a shame that's no longer the case.

(h/t D. Michael for the tip about the Delaware State guy)

See also:

Related Articles

oct 01, 2014; updated oct 03, 2014
On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise