The Ebola virus that has claimed nearly 9,000 lives across West Africa is gradually mutating but will not become airborne, scientists said on Thursday.
Experts at the Institut Pasteur in France have spent recent months analysing hundreds of blood samples from Ebola patients in Guinea.
They warned that it was still too early in their research to say whether mutations in the virus thus far would lead to more lethal or infectious strains.
But Dr Anavaj Sakuntabhai, an Oxford-educated geneticist involved in the research, said that claims that the virus might move from being fluid-borne to airborne — and potentially much more infectious — were a near impossibility.
That theory was voiced last October by Anthony Banbury, the head of the United Nations mission on Ebola, who said it was a 'nightmare scenario' but that it 'could not be ruled out'.
Sakuntabhai told The Daily Telegraph, "I don't think it is likely. For any pathogen (agent of disease) to change its mode of transmission would mean they would have to adapt to a completely different environment."
He likened it to a fish developing lungs or a human growing gills. He also said that the mutations detected in the Ebola virus so far were of a routine kind showed by most viruses, and were caused simply by minute fluctuations caused by constant duplication.
"It's like copying something out longhand — the more times you write it out, the less the later copies will probably resemble the original," he said.
A more worrying scenario would have been signs of the virus adapting to different conditions. Such is the behaviour of the so-called 'intelligent' HIV, which makes it difficult to develop cures.
Dr Sakuntabhai said, "We don't think that the Ebola virus is particularly clever, and it doesn't seem like it can change that much, although we need to do more research before we draw any definitive conclusions about that."