A reefkeepers look at the Ebola Virus Outbreak

by Justin Hester

When I first started seeing reports in the news about the Ebola virus earlier in the year I kind of found it odd that the first place my mind wandered was to the world of reef keeping .  Ok, maybe that’s where my mind goes with most things, but it did strike me how the spread of this disease plays out in a way that seems all too familiar to anyone that has dealt with an outbreak of any of our familiar reef pests.  I decided to take a closer look and see if the parallels between Ebola and our reef pests could be looked at through the same lens.  I am curious if doing that would afford us some insight into learning how the Ebola virus appears to be mounting an attack on our own species. Can the world heed a little advice from reef hobbyists as we look at all the uneasy parallels that are revealed when you look a little closer? How do the contraction mechanisms work?   Could there be any steps or lessons gleaned from a hobby that has come to know terms like quarantine, “patient 0”, and isolation all to well? How has the global nature of both our reef trade and the human race been a contributing factor?

Of course the unfortunate difference in these two scenarios is that with coral pests we have the luxury of being bystanders with our reef pests, voyeuristically watching, unaffected by both the treatment or the outcome.  By stark comparison, with Ebola, the twist is that we are both the the detectives and the infected. My goal in writing this is not to marginalize any of the lives that have been lost in this deadliest of Ebola outbreaks, but rather to look at what makes it tick from a biological level and compare that with insight from dealing with disease and pests in reef aquariums.

Uneasy parallels between the Ebola virus and coral pests

Close to a year ago the first case of Ebola arose when a 2yr old boy died on Dec. 6, just a few days after falling ill in a village in Guéckédou, in southeastern Guinea. Soon after, member of his family died, and then it spread to villagers and health workers around the region.  As of writing this, it has now spread to 3 continents.  The spread of this outbreak appears to be wider and faster than any in the past, an important fact, and probably related to how people now travel farther from their homes in Africa than during past outbreaks which were all isolated and contained.

In the last 15 years of our hobby, we have seen a similar “globalization”  with corals now being farmed away from their native ecosystem, and colonies flown in to your local fish store from the far reaches of the tropics.  Consequently various aspects of this scenario have created hot spots for “coral pests”  to flourish. By this we learn that taking a coral pest, removing it from its ecosystem where it had predators, and keeping it along side its food source, our corals, can be somewhat of a ticking time bomb.  We see just like with Ebola, that these pests grow in population and use our corals and local fish stores as a means to jump from host to host.  Before you know it, our coral trade becomes the same problem that glo

ebola virus

photo courtesy of Real Clear

balization of humans is causing with Ebola.

In an almost uncanny similarity, our pests have probably come from single shipments or even single species of coral being imported to dealers around the world.  Any coral pests that are removed from their natural ecosystem in most cases lack any predators and are now given an all you can eat buffet of their preferred food.  This is a recipe for rapid expansion of the problem much like we are seeing with Ebola spreading through some of the African nations where healthcare and traditional burial practices have provided the virus with easy and simple connection points to rapidly spread, jumping from patient to patient probably in many cases without their knowledge.

Identifying the Problem

In reef keeping observation is key to discovering any pest outbreak early, but does the same play out for ebola?  Peering into our tanks daily to observe our corals health can give us the telltale signs when something isn’t quite right.  The challenge with Ebola is that people can contract it and be walking around with it without showing any signs of infection.  To date, only when they have a fever 2-21 days after being infected themselves, do they become infectious.

In our reef tanks, the common logic we have followed over the years if we are suspicious we have a pest are as follows:

1-Typically we start by checking water parameters to make sure they are in line.

2-After that if problem is still persistent, we make more observations.  What is being affected?  Is it all corals, or just one species, tank, or individual?  Are the corals being effected base up or tip down, or all over at once?  Can we determine if there is a coral that we started noticing this change on first?  Have we made any recent purchases?

3-Were these sufficiently dipped and put in QT before being introduced to the rest of our tank population?   Determining just what corals are being affected can then help us to separate and QT those corals from the rest of our systems.

4-Do we see the problem getting better or worse?  If we do some dips on the corals, are we seeing results?  Are things falling off that we can identify as the culprit?


Controlling the spread

If we know that in the supply chain of the reef hobby, pests will be on suppliers corals before we buy them, then how do we get pests in the first place?  Are we being simply too complacent that it won’t happen to us?  Is everyone not using a QT system?  Do we not dip every coral that comes in, chop it off the mounting plug and re-glue it?  Do we not look at a coral in our LFS and check it visually for red bugs, AEFW eggs, or nudi’s?  Sadly, the answer for all of us at one time or another is no and most of us have learned at one time or another that all it takes is letting your guard down that one time.

What do you do once your tank has been breached and you notice a pest has established itself?   Traditionally, swift quarantine and a militant regimen of dips will both remove the food chain and put pressure on the pest population only then allowing you to take the upper hand in the fight.  Secondarily, if a pest predator has been identified, this is usually a good time to introduce it.  These predators can be plugged into your tank to fill the missing link in the ecosystems food chain which led to the problem in the first place.

Some common pest predators include

Butterfly Fish/Filefish- Aiptasia

Melanurus and other Halichoeres Wrasses-AEFW and Nudi’s

Foxface Rabbitfish- nuisance algae

Thinking of these less like problem solvers and more like things to keep pest populations in check is probably a better visual.  Completing as best as possible the ecosystems in our tanks should be a goal for all of us.  The more completely we mimic nature, the less problems generally occur.  Unfortunately, many times we see people simply treat their tanks by throwing medicines and chemicals at it rather than doing some research.

Ebola, challenges all of the above though in that its not really a part of the ecosystem that has a predator or can be kept in check that way.  Truly if we were to look at what natural process would control it, it would be that we humans simply didn’t travel from our villages. Thousands of years ago, the result of an infection would still be death probably, but it would be limited to a certain village or group of people.  Today we see both the size of our population and our mobility as challenges to this notion.  This challenge is then compounded by the fact that people can be walking around with no observable problems for up to 3 weeks and only when their fever sets in do they become contagious.  This fact really puts the honus on the individual which is a difficult and troubling thing to consider when you step back and look at it.

Finding a remedy

As we discussed earlier, with the case of coral pests, we humans have the luxury of carte blanche experimentation.  That is to say we can try dips, quarantines, or any other means without the risk of ourselves being affected by these coral pests.  Sadly, this isn’t the case when dealing with the deadly Ebola virus.  Scientists seem to mainly have the lab of the real world to examine what has happened with past outbreaks and what is literally happening day to day around the world to learn how this virus infects, spreads, and possibly mutates.  Is it airborn or not, how long are people contagious, how do you contract the disease, all seem to be questions with at best educated guesses from the last smaller Ebola outbreaks dating back to the first in the Congo in 1976.

Similar to how we operate with our reef tanks, it will probably take some level of technological focus or breakthrough coupled with containment strategies in order for us to have a chance at getting a handle on Ebola.  Every passing day that contact lists grow, this becomes exponentially more difficult as with Ebola, we aren’t talking about sedentary corals that are sitting on a piece of rock or egg crate and don’t move until we move them.  The tipping point with diseases tend to occur when people go about their daily activities and don’t know they are contagious.  I think we are all hopeful that isn’t the case as we watch the case of the nurse who flew from Cleveland with a fever back to dallas.  So far that has caused both voluntary and mandatory quarantine of over 800 people.


What Lessons can we learn?

In the past 20 years or so of the reef keeping hobby certain procedures and guidelines have evolved that IF USED, can do a really great job in preventing pest and disease outbreaks as well as control them if they do find a way to slip into your tank.  Of course prevention is always the best way to deal with any outbreak, but sometimes as we all know, that isn’t how things play out.  In the past few years, we have seen new products come to market to help with controlling all the common reef pests including, red bugs, AEFW, zoa pox, zoo nudibranchs, monti nudi’s, acropora eating spiders, etc etc.  In my opinion, these products should be used in conjunction with a strategy of ecosystem design so that we are mimicing in our tanks as close to a natural food chain as possible.

On the Ebola front, the hope is that all of the hard working biotech firms like Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, NewLink Genetics, and Biocryst Pharmaceuticals will result in a remedy as they fast track many of their field trials.  In the wake of the technology being thrown at Ebola, perhaps the simple steps of prevention and sequestation that we use in our reef tanks can at least offer some form of protection, albeit at a cost that equals a major disruption of our daily lives.