Ebola patient Thomas Duncan may have spread virus, NIH expert says

Although he believes Ebola is contained in Texas, where Liberian man Thomas Eric Duncan first showed symptoms of the virus after traveling to the U.S., an infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health says it's "absolutely" possible that one of Duncan's contacts will get sick in the coming days.

"I would not be surprised if one of the people who came into direct contact with Mr. Duncan when he was ill will get Ebola. You can't say. You can't put a number on it. It's impossible to do that. But there certainly is a risk," Dr. Anthony Fauci who heads up the Allergy and Infectious Diseases Institutes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday.

Duncan took a turn for the worse Saturday and is now in critical condition at the Dallas hospital that is treating him.

Despite the possibility that another person may contract Ebola, Fauci said he believes the situation in Dallas has been contained because procedures to prevent an outbreak such as tracing Duncan's contacts have been implemented. But he acknowledged that the case was not handled well from the start: the hospital initially sent Duncan home after he sought treatment for fever and abdominal pain from the hospital.

"Hopefully, this will be lessons learned so that emergency room and clinic docs throughout the country, when they have someone come in and say they have symptoms compatible with Ebola, you ask them, 'Have you been to West Africa?' And if they are, then you trigger the protocol," he said.

Dr. John LaPook, CBS News' chief medical correspondent, said that the hospitals' fumbling of the case "undermines the public's confidence" that the virus will not spread.

But, he said, "This is not Africa. There is 40 years of experience with a couple of dozen of previous Ebola outbreaks in Africa. And they've all been successfully handled... this is not the time for magical thinking. This is the time to believe in science."

One lawmaker, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, has sounded the alarm about the virus and suggested, " it's a lot more transmissible" than believed because even health care workers in Africa who are trying to protect themselves have caught Ebola.

"I don't think that there's data to tell us that that's a correct statement, with all due respect," Fauci said. "We have had experience since 1976 with how Ebola is transmitted. And it is clear that it's transmitted by direct contact with body fluids, blood, diarrhea, vomit, or what have you. And there's no indication that there is another insidious way that it's transmitted that we're missing because of the experience that we've had."

Noting that Ebola cannot be spread through the air like the flu is, LaPook said, "If this were spread like the flu there would be millions and millions of cases."

Paul also questioned President Obama's decision to dispatch 3,000 military personnel to West Africa to help combat the spread of the disease, noting that illness spreads quickly on a ship. "I'm sorry, but that's really not a concern," Fauci said. "First of all, the troops that are going over there are going to be fundamentally for logistic purposes, command, control, engineering, setting up the hospitals. They're well trained. They will not be in direct risk in the sense of contact with individuals. And even if they are, the protocols are in place to prevent spread from there. So, I don't and the Army does not have any real concern that those 3,000 to 4,000 are going to be in danger."

In a separate interview on "Face the Nation," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, responding to Paul's comments, said, "I think it's right to ask the questions."

"Now, I'm not a medical expert. I want to listen to the medical experts. But I do not want to ignore the challenge. So, I want to look at making sure this cannot spread," he said.

He said the way to get to the "core of the problem" is to invest in a vaccine and a treatment so it can be cured "once and for all."

An experimental drug, ZMapp, was used during the successful treatment of health workers Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol who became infected in August. But the supply has run out.

Fauci said that there will be more ZMapp, but it is difficult to produce and probably won't be ready for a month and a half to two months from now.

"We're not going to get it tomorrow or next week," he said.

Another vaccine to prevent Ebola is in the early trial phases at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, and that by the end of the year scientists should be able to determine whether its safe. At that point they could move to a larger trial in West Africa.

McCarthy said Congress can play a role in supplying the necessary funding to fight the virus and develop treatments.

"Let's not have bureaucracy and red tape slow down in the F.D.A. from any experimental drug that can happen and can cure in Africa," He said.

As flu season approaches and many people will develop symptoms like headache, fever, aches and pains - common in both flu and Ebola - Fauci urged Americans to think rationally about how Ebola spreads.

"If you are in Massachusetts now and you get a cold, there's no chance that you have Ebola," he said. "You've gotta really be rational and have the evidence be the major thing that gets you in your decisions and your concerns."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.