Somewhat surprisingly, the current strain of Ebola is mutating twice as fast in human hosts as in other hosts such as bats. This comes to light based on a study published very recently in Science, and reported on by ABC Science.
The Ebola virus shares its protein shell (also known as capsid) with the Marburg virus, making up the majority of the viral family Filoviradae. These filament-like viruses have been shown to be naturally found in bats, which almost universally survive the infections without contracting symptoms.
A genotyping project undertaken by the Scripps Research Institute found approximately 300 mutations, primarily in the viral capsid, when analysing the current Ebola strain. This was derived from the analysis of 78 infected individuals, and shows that the virus is mutating about twice as fast in human hosts as it does in animal hosts (such as bats).
This may have an impact of on its transmissability, but before you panic: keep in mind that filament-like viruses are not particularly skilled at moving through the air. Unlike influenza, which has a capsid reminiscent of pollen (which is excellent at flying through the air), Ebola’s form is reminiscent of a worm or a snake. Now, if you’ve ever compared the distance that a worm, and a ball, can fly: you are well aware that the ball flies a lot better.
Still, this elevated mutation rate will complicate attempts to develop truly effective treatments or vaccines.