Scientists warn New Ebola strain found in West Africa has potential to infect humans

Just days after the end of an outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo that killed dozens, and two years after a major outbreak in West Africa that left thousands dead, Sierra Leone said it had discovered a new strain of the virus that also has the potential to infect human cells.

While the new Bombali Ebola species, named after a northern part of the country, has the ability to infect humans, researchers told Agent France-Presse it’s not yet known whether the new virus can develop into a new Ebola disease.

"At this time, it is not yet known if the Bombali Ebola virus has been transmitted to people or if it causes disease in people, but it has the potential to infect human cells," Amara Jambai, a senior ministry of health official, told AFP.

Jambai also said the public should remain calm -- the research is still in an early stage, and the findings are preliminary. 

A U.S.-funded project, EcoHealth Alliance, an environmental non-profit group, along with scientists from the University of California at Davis and Columbia University made the new discovery. The project is aimed at finding new viruses that could possibly spread to people. The new strain was found in bats in the West African country and is the sixth species of Ebola, according to STAT News, a health-oriented news service that is part of Boston Globe Media.

The CEO of EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak, said a scientific paper detailing the evidence and methods of their findings has not yet been published but is in the works. The government of Sierra Leone said it wanted to release the initial findings ahead of the academic publications to subdue fears.

Last Tuesday, the Democratic Republic of Congo said that an Ebola outbreak that had infected 54 people and killed 33 since April had ended. Prior to that, an international epidemic originating in West Africa killed thousands over a number of years. 

That outbreak began In December 2013 when an 18-month-old baby from a small village in Guinea was infected by bats. From there, it spread to larger cities within the country. The World Health Organization officially sounded the alarm in March 2014, classifying it as an Ebola outbreak with around 120 new cases that month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Due to poor health infrastructure and a low quality of life, the disease soon spread to neighboring countries. By July 2014, Liberia and Sierra Leone were also infected, bringing the number of new cases that month to more than 700. By October, that monthly number was 7,000, most of them in Sierra Leone.

By the end of that epidemic  in March 2016, the disease had infected more than 26,000 people across 10 countries, causing more than 11,000 deaths. Sierra Leone was hit hardest, with 4,000 deaths. 

In the U.S., four people revealed themselves to be infected upon returning, resulting in one death.