Dr. Cyril Broderick’s conspiracy theory about the origin of the Ebola Virus Disease cannot be substantiated. His sources failed to corroborate his sweeping conclusion that “Ebola is a genetically modified organism” (GMO) invented by Western powers. Yet, Dr. Broderick’s hypothesis is alluring mainly because it evokes the specter of past unethical uses of science, such as the notorious 1932-1972 Tuskegee syphilis experiment. In that experiment, the United States government deliberately withheld syphilis treatment from unsuspecting African Americans. Dr. Broderick’s Ebola conspiracy may stir memories of Tuskegee, especially, since President Bill Clinton’s public apology of 1997 acknowledged that “what the United States government did was shameful.” Still, Dr. Broderick’s conspiracy theory must be evaluated solely on the evidence he presents. I have analyzed each of the five points he put forward in support of his argument.
First Point: “Ebola is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO).” His source is “Emerging Viruses” by Leonard Horowitz. The following is essentially all that Dr. Broderick presents from the 100-plus page book in defense of his highly controversial claim:
“In Chapter 7 . . . the discussion made it obvious that the war was between countries that hosted the KGB and the CIA, and the manufacture of AIDS-like viruses was clearly directed at the other. In passing during the interview, mention was made of Fort Detrick, the Ebola Building, and a lot of problems of strange illnesses in Fredrick [Maryland]. By Chapter 12 . . . he had confirmed the existence of an American Military-Medical-Industry that conducts biological weapons tests under the guise . . . to . . . improve the health of black Africans overseas.”
After reading the 1995 # 1 New York Times Bestseller, The Hot Zone (cited next by Dr. Broderick) it became clear that the places Dr. Broderick mentions above were connected to a 1990 near biological disaster in the United States. That event made national headlines, and involved research in deadly diseases and apparently bioweapons at the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland; this must be Dr. Broderick’s so-called “Ebola Building.” Virologists at USAMRIID discovered a “strange illness” and raised alarm when they realized that the unidentified illness had infected several persons. Investigations further revealed that the infected people had contact with monkeys imported from the Philippines by a private company in Reston, Virginia. It was later determined that the infection was a new strain of the Ebola virus and was subsequently named Ebola Reston. Though Ebola Reston was fatal in the monkeys, it proved to be non-lethal in the infected people. The other Ebola strains are Ebola Sudan and Ebola Zaire. It is the latter, the deadliest, that is currently killing Liberians (as well as Guineans and Sierra Leoneans). Dr. Broderick clearly failed to prove his provocative point that Ebola is a GMO.
Second Point: “Ebola has a terrible history and testing has been secretly taking place in Africa.” Here, Dr. Broderick’s only source is the above-mentioned The Hot Zone. But amazingly, he gives no citation from the 422-page book to back his argument. Instead, Dr. Broderick writes the following:
“A terrifying true story . . . what was found in animals killed by the Ebola virus is what the virus has been doing to citizens of . . . Liberia in its most recent outbreak . . .. The 1976 Ebola incident in Zaire, during President Mobutu Sese Seko, was the introduction of the GMO Ebola to Africa.”
There is no clear indication in The Hot Zone of clandestine Ebola experiments in Africa, the crux of Dr. Broderick’s second point. What is rather straightforward is that following a number of outbreaks of new diseases in Africa (Ebola Zaire in 1976, for example) specimens were gathered and sent overseas. Take as an example, Marburg virus. This disease, though not as deadly as Ebola (Marburg kills 25% of its victim compared to 50%-90% for Ebola Zaire), also rapidly reduces body tissues to liquid, a process known as liquefaction. When an unknown disease struck in Kenya in 1980, specimens from a victim were sent abroad. Experiments later proved that the unknown infection was Marburg. Earlier in the 1960s, this disease had been diagnosed in Marburg, Germany, in monkeys imported from Africa.
Third Point: “Sites around Africa, and West Africa, have over the years been set up for testing emerging diseases, especially Ebola.” Here too, Dr. Broderick’s presentation is dubious. For instance, he cites one quotation in The Guardian: “The US government funding of Ebola trials on healthy humans comes amid warnings by top scientists in Harvard and Yale. . . .” But so far, I have been unable to locate this source. A well-known US-based conservative blog that has been similarly critical of Dr. Broderick’s article noted this about that quotation: “A routine Internet search finds no evidence that such a sentence was ever written in the pages of The Guardian. A second reference by Dr. Broderick is likewise questionable. Indeed, the latter source raises important questions about biological research by Western nations inside West Africa. But it leaves these queries open, i.e., it provides no answers or evidence: e.g., “Is this purely defensive research? Or as we have seen in the past, is this research being covertly used to develop offensive bioweapons?” Dr. Broderick simply repeats the author’s insinuations.
Fourth and Final Point: Dr. Broderick’s last two points sound essentially like manifestos. He calls for political and judicial actions against the perpetrators of “the detestable and devilish deeds” by repeating his allegations.
The Ebola epidemic is giving rise to hysteria in the United States. This in turn contributes to the negative image of Liberians and Africans. Dr. Broderick’s unsubstantiated conspiracy theory feeds into this negative stereotype. Hopefully, more fact-based exchanges will present a balanced and nuanced image of Liberia, and Africa at large.