© Zoom Dosso/AFP/Getty Images
Nurses wearing a protective suit escorting a man infected with the Ebola virus to a hospital in Monrovia.
There is a real possibility that Ebola could mutate into a virus that is as spreadable as the flu, one of the nation's top Ebola researchers tells Newsmax Health.

"I don't want to be an alarmist, but the possibility of Ebola becoming an airborne virus clearly has to be taken into account," said David Sanders, associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University.

"Ebola does share some of the characteristics of airborne viruses like influenza and we should not disregard the possibility of it evolving into something that could be transmitted in this way," added Sanders, whose work on Ebola led to his participation in the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency's Biological Weapons Proliferation Prevention Program.

U.S. health officials have largely dismissed Ebola as posing a major threat inside American borders.

Testifying before a Congressional subcommittee this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top White House infectious disease advisor, said it was very unlikely Ebola would mutate in a way that would make it transmittable through the air like flu.

That's "not something I would put at the very top of the radar screen," he said.

But Sanders disagrees. "I want the facts to be clear. It's important that we not get the idea that this can't happen," he said, adding, "When people say that it is impossible for this virus to mutate, this is simply not true."

According to Sanders, a key factor in the successful mutation of a virus centers on how it enters and exits the body. Sanders led a research team that established the Zaire form of the Ebola virus, which is the one involved in the West Africa epidemic, could enter the mucus-lined cells that line the human airway in much the same way the flu virus does.

He pointed to the flu as an example of how a virus can mutate so that it can infect different species and be transmitted in different ways.

Originally, flu was a virus that lived in the gastrointestinal tract of aquatic birds, like ducks and geese. But it mutated into a disease that spread easily among humans, gaining entry to the human body through airways, which have a mucus lining that is similar to that in the gastrointestinal tract of birds.

To pose a major threat in the U.S., the Ebola virus would have to mutate so that it could survive outside the body for a significant length of time like influenza can, Sanders said.

"This is not how the Ebola virus is currently known to spread, but there is evidence that it has some of the necessary components for respiratory transmission," he said.

The more the West Africa epidemic spreads, the more likely it is that the virus will mutate. This is why it is important the outbreak be contained now, even though it hasn't yet reached American shores, he said.

"When people have looked at the current outbreak, the virus really hasn't changed much," Sanders said. "However, this research was done when there were 1,500 cases and now it's up to 4,000 and if it gets to be 100,000 cases, there is more and more of a chance for mutations to occur."

There is no way to forecast when or if Ebola will dangerously mutate, he said.

"I can't calculate you the probability of this happening. I can just tell you that from the way the virus enters the body, this is a possibility and that clearly has to be taken into account," Sanders added.

He pointed to another strain of the Ebola virus that has already mutated to become transmittable through the air. In fact, it has already hit the U.S., although it turned out to be non-lethal to humans. The disease was dubbed Ebola-Reston because its initial outbreak occurred in Reston, Va., in 1989.

The outbreak stemmed from a shipment of infected macaques imported from the Philippines. The disease spread from the macaques to other monkeys housed at a quarantine facility. The infected monkeys all died and four workers at the quarantine facility tested positive for the disease. Surprisingly, the workers never got sick.

A later outbreak occurred in Texas. Ebola-Reston is the only one of the five forms of Ebola not harmful to humans.

However, it does show that a virus in the Ebola family can be spread through the air. "There is good evidence that it spread through a respiratory route," said Sanders.

If the Ebola strain in West Africa does go airborne, it could be a global catastrophe, experts say. According to one prediction by Michigan State University professor Francis Smart, 1.2 million would die from the disease. Smart says it is "extremely foolish" for any nation to think they are immune from Ebola.

The Ebola outbreak raging in West Africa has now claimed more than 2,600 lives and that number is expected to greatly increase before the epidemic can be contained.