No, 48% of Israelis do not wish Barack Obama would receive ebola for his birthday

When Ezra Klein launched Vox earlier this year, he promised that it would be a different kind of news site:

Today, we are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened . . . Our mission is to create a site that’s as good at explaining the world as it is at reporting on it.

A lofty promise.

But instead, we got important and newsworthy articles like: “An Israeli web poll asks what Obama should get for his birthday. 48 percent say ‘ebola.’“:

[A] recent reader poll on the popular Israeli news and entertainment site Mako . . . asked readers what Obama should get for his 53rd birthday, on Monday. By far the most popular choice is “An envelope of the ebola virus,” which has tracked about 50 percent of votes since the poll went up.

Vox was kind enough to supply a healthy dose of perspective to accompany the internet poll:

Big caveat: these results are of course far from statistically rigorous, and while Mako is very popular it’s not clear how many people participated. But Israeli distrust of Obama, and the perception that he is secretly hostile to Israel despite all of his government’s overt support for the country, is pretty well established in actually scientific surveys.

But there’s a more important point Vox is missing and I hope to supply. The poll is not about whether Obama has “the right to publicly pressure Israel a bit without Israelis wishing to give him ebola.” Indeed, the poll does not indicate that Israelis wish Obama would contract ebola at all. So far as I can tell, Israeli respondents actually want to protect Obama from the deadly virus.

This interpretation becomes more obvious when you understand the nature of the ebola virus and how it might one day be both prevented and treated. Consider again what the respondents wished Obama could receive for his birthday: “An envelope of the ebola virus.” You’re probably imagining an envelope that could be stamped and sent by courier. But you’d be wrong. In fact, the virion envelope actually plays a very important role in the spread of the virus. Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of ebola replication [emphasis mine]:

The ebolavirus life cycle begins with virion attachment to specific cell-surface receptors, followed by fusion of the virion envelope with cellular membranes and the concomitant release of the virus nucleocapsid into the cytosol. [Editor’s note: Intermediate replication steps excised here.] Newly synthesized structural proteins and genomes self-assemble and accumulate near the inside of the cell membrane. Virions bud off from the cell, gaining their envelopes from the cellular membrane they bud from. The mature progeny particles then infect other cells to repeat the cycle.

tl;dr the “envelope” describes the outer membrane of the ebolavirus. Proteins on the exterior of these membranes allow the virus to infect other cells. Once those cells have been commandeered to create more ebola, they explode and each bit of ebola RNA is enveloped in a fragment of that cell’s outer membrane.

Scientists have not yet succeeded in developing an effective ebola vaccine. However, should they ever succeed, the vaccine might conceivably involve training the immune system to recognize — and respond to — those virion envelopes. This will likely entail the injection of inert vaccine, or perhaps just fragments of virion envelope, into at-risk individuals and allowing their immune system to learn what it must do to mount a successful counterattack.

ZMapp, the experimental serum administered to the two U.S. citizens who contracted ebola and were evacuated to Atlanta, utilized a related approach to confer protection against ebola. Rather than inoculating everybody against potential infection by ebola, San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. infected mice with the virus, harvested the antibodies their bodies created in response, and injected them into two human patients who needed them. The approach takes advantage of the same fundamental phenomenon (that is, the immune system) as a traditional vaccine, but in a much more targeted way.

The details aren’t important. What is important is that the Israeli respondents’ apparent wish for Obama to receive “an envelope of the ebola virus” in no way indicates Israeli ill-will towards the U.S. President. The respondents simply expressed their sincere wish that Obama will be soon presented with a safe and effective ebola vaccine, in the form of inert ebola virion envelope, speedily in our birthdays, amen.

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