IMG 3066The 2014 epidemic of Ebola virus disease in West Africa is unlike any Ebola event ever seen before. In fact, as of this writing, it’s already ten times larger in terms of case fatalities—ten times more punishing to Africans, ten times more scary and befuddling to people around the world—than any single outbreak of an ebolavirus (there are five kinds) during the previous known history of the disease. The peculiarly unfortunate circumstances that allowed this outbreak to simmer for months and then explode in the three countries first affected, and especially in Liberia, include weakened governance after decades of civil turmoil, inadequate health-care infrastructure, shortage of trained health-care workers and simple barrier-nursing supplies, population density and poverty in the capital cities, suspicion of Western medicine, and traditional funerary practices. Those factors, and the progress of the epidemic, have been charted in some of the best of the news coverage, including this story by Canadian reporter Helen Branswell, and this one from a team at The Washington Post.

I value such news reporting as much as anyone, but my own role as a writer is different; I cover science and science history at greater length and slower speed. Still, as the epidemic became more severe in late August, my British publisher asked me to move quickly, for a change, and draw together the sections concerning Ebola virus from my 2012 book Spillover and, by editing and rearranging them into a stand-alone structure, to create a small book that could be published promptly. I’ve done that, adding a new Introduction, and a new Epilogue about the events of 2014. The result is Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, published by Random House in the United Kingdom in early October and by W.W. Norton in the United States on October 20. This is a book for people who are too busy, in an urgent and nervous time, or otherwise disinclined by lack of interest in the broader topic, to read Spillover. Its purpose is to give readers, including hurried news people and public officials as well as ordinary readers, a concise but substantive understanding of Ebola virus within its scientific, historical, and geographical contexts.

Ebola comes from the African forest. I’ve been there, shadowing the footsteps of some courageous researchers; I’ve also had opportunity, over the course of six years’ work on Spillover, to study the scientific literature on Ebola and to talk with some of the world’s foremost experts.  Now my editors at National Geographic have asked me to go IMG 0899back to the Ebola story, and back to Africa, for a report on one of the central and abiding mysteries about Ebola virus: Where does it hide between outbreaks?  There must be a reservoir host, a creature within which the virus abides when it’s not killing humans.  But with 38 years gone by since the first recognized outbreak of Ebola, the identity of that reservoir host is still unknown.

On November 10, 2014, I arrived in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to converge with a German scientist named Fabian Leendertz, who with an international team of colleagues and students is studying the question of Ebola’s reservoir host.  Fabian has a new hypothesis and has mounted this field expedition in Ivory Coast to gather samples from certain animals and test his idea.  Ivory Coast is not directly affected with Ebola cases—not so far--but shares its western border with Liberia and Guinea, both of which are.  Ivoirians are concerned enough about the proximity of Ebola, I notice, that the boys who hawk cold drinks and snacks amid traffic jams on the country’s main highway are now selling hand sanitizer as well.

My partner on this assignment is Pete Muller, a fine and seasoned young combat photographer, based in Nairobi.  This time the combat he’s shooting is epidemiological, not military.  Pete and I will be here in Ivory Coast with Fabian’s team for about two weeks.  Then Pete will go on to southeastern Guinea, where the 2014 outbreak began, to document some of the human toll of Ebola.  I’ll return to the continent in January for interviews with Ebola researchers in South Africa and Gabon.  The result of our efforts will appear in National Geographic sometime next year.  Stay tuned.