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How Ebola can quickly mutate: 'Hot Zone' author

While very fast-mutating, Ebola is unlikely to become transmissible through the air, said Richard Preston, author of the "The Hot Zone," a work of non-fiction from the 1990s that reads like a horror movie about the first emergence of the virus.

"One of the scientists said to me, 'Can Zebras learn how to fly?' Not too likely," he said on CNBC's "Squawk Box" Monday. "A better question to ask, 'Can Zebras learn how to run faster?' That is something that Ebola could learn to do, so to speak, as it multiplies in humans."

People can only get Ebola through direct contact with the bodily fluids from infected patients, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). There's no evidence that the virus can be spread by exposed people who are asymptomatic, Preston said.

But the author said Ebola "could grow to higher concentrations in human blood, or paradoxically, it could become less fatal in humans." The virus has about a 50 percent fatality rate, according to the WHO. "Let's say the death rate became 20 percent instead of 50 percent, then more people would be sick with Ebola who could move around longer and potentially spread the virus to more people," Preston theorized.

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Meanwhile, he said he's confident the virus won't become a major problem in the United States. "We definitely have the means to control Ebola … and we will do so."

That's not the case in Africa. "Ebola virus is fully out of control in West Africa," described Preston, but said he would not support a flight ban from countries with the worst outbreaks. "To me personally, it does not make a whole lot of sense. It's not the best way to stop a virus anyway." His statement was consistent with U.S. health officials who have spoken out against the idea of a ban. Instead, Preston said he would beef up U.S. medical personnel to deal with the isolated "imported cases" and to stop quickly any infection chains.

Mistakes were made in the diagnosis and isolation of the first U.S. Ebola patient who arrived in Dallas from Liberia on Sept. 20, said Preston, who also wrote "The Demon in the Freezer," which takes readers into the heart of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Thomas Eric Duncan, who started to show symptoms of Ebola shortly after his arrival, had sought medical treatment at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. He was sent home with antibiotics only to be admitted and diagnosed with the virus days later. He died early this month.

Forty-eight people who had contact with Duncan before he was isolated were taken off the 21-day Ebola watch list early Monday. None have showed any symptoms. But dozens more people continue to be monitored by health officials, including two nurses at the hospital who contracted the virus while caring for Duncan in isolation.

Asked if lessons were learned since the Duncan case, Preston said: "The lesson is being learned," and quickly, by health care workers who are putting their lives on the line to treat Ebola patients.

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