Ebola, or Filoviral hemorrhagic fever (FHF), is a scary, scary thing. One minute the victim thinks he has a mild dose of flu, the next his insides are turning to mush. It usually has a fatality rate north of 90%, (this particular strain is around 56%), and is one of the most deadly and virulent known viral diseases. Worryingly, it is on the move. The current outbreak, which started in February in Guinea and is the largest in history, has claimed some 729 lives out of 1323 known cases so far. It has struck in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and has now killed a 40-year-old man who travelled through a Lagos airport. The incidence of Ebola viral diseases (EVD) has been growing in the past 20 years and has been striking this year in previously unaffected areas in West Africa rather than Central Africa which has been the norm.
Trying though, to work through the shrill media headlines is becoming more tricky as the media herd sense a “big new story,” to fill their endless airtime. The reality is that while its obviously not much of a winner for the people unfortunate to catch the virus, the probabilities of a pandemic remain low.
The World Health Organisation are obviously on the front foot in terms of the current outbreak which they describe the epidemic trend in their latest update as “precarious,” with 122 new cases between the 24th and 27th with 57 deaths.
The death reported in Lagos is unhelpful. The individual arrived there by air on the 20th via Togo and Ghana. 59 contacts, (15 airport staff and 44 from the hospital), have been identified so far. More are probable and the movement of the disease to Nigeria is a significant development.
The World Health Organisation doesn’t yet recommend any travel or trade restrictions to Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone or Nigeria nor does our own National Travel Health Network ; (obviously they’ve had a letter from a gentleman in Lagos telling them everything there is fine). The default position to manage these things is to tell everyone not to panic while quietly ramping up surveillance and biorisk security. Our own Foreign Office are masters at this; “This is not an issue that affects the UK directly. We have experienced scientists and doctors – the Royal Free Infectious Disease Unit, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – and a lot of experience of dealing with dangerous diseases. The risk of this disease spreading fast in the UK is much lower because of that.”
That though is very probably the case. Previous outbreaks have been characterised with an increasing localised death toll but which has turned down steeply as precautionary measures, principally health worker biosecurity and patient isolation, have been deployed. The disease usually starts in rural areas where the population have close contact with wildlife and burial customs usually include handling the dead. With underequipped clinics and porous borders it is unsurprising that it spreads. In recent years, the disease has failed to get a hold in urban areas where the threat of animal to human transmission is much lower and medical facilities more advanced. Also, the disease is not highly contagious, it’s simply deadly if you are unlucky.
The disease has an incubation period of between 2 and 21 days but one bit of luck is that people infected with Ebola cannot infect others until they have the symptoms. This makes it markedly easier to track and control. Fortunately, one of the few areas of slick international cooperation in the world appears to be that of disease control and the WHO and CDC appear to be all over this one. Nonetheless, many humanitarian organisations are pulling their people out of the at-risk areas and travel restrictions are beginning to come into force at the local level. My favourite travel advice incidentally is from the CDC who helpfully recommend that “travellers to these areas avoid contact with blood and body fluids of infected people to protect themselves.” Seriously?
In summary, the pandemic risk of a virus is the result of its ease and rate of transmission which makes Ebola a very different kettle of fish to say, the Spanish Flu epidemic after the Great War. While it is possible that a case could enter the UK, Europe or the US, expert virologists expect the worst that can happen would be clusters of infection and death that would be quickly and efficiently contained. Just to give you some perspective, AIDS has killed 30m people so far and Ebola has, so far at least, killed less people than does Malaria every two days.
Market impact is likely to be similar; localised hits on companies that have specific trading or manufacturing links with these areas but which are unlikely to have an impact at the broader asset class level. As it is, equities are so fragile they are quite capable of displaying the symptoms and characteristics of the Ebola virus on their own without any outside help.
If you want something to worry about which is far more likely to affect British and American citizens then consider this flesh eating nasty in Florida…………
There, as the old head of the anti-terrorist squad George Churchill-Coleman used to say on the news after PIRA had blown up another London postcode, “There is no cause for alarm..”