The outbreak of the Ebola virus in the west African nation of Guinea earlier this year saw mining concerns such as Vale (NYSE: VALE) and Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO) implement cautionary measures to protect their workers, including evacuating international staff, giving leave to locals not to show up, and contributing money to combating the disease.
The subsequent lull in the virus' spread allowed a sense of normalcy to return, but with a new flare-up and health officials warning it may turn into a pandemic spreading virulently to neighboring countries, the threat to the nascent natural resources industries in these countries would seem to be real.
A killing machine
Ebola is deadly. Untreated it has a 90% fatality rate, and even when caught early it still kills 60% of its victims. There have been over 1,300 cases detected as of July 27 and 729 deaths, according to the World Health Organization, making this the worst outbreak ever. There's also no known cure for Ebola, a virulent, highly contagious disease that causes vomiting and diarrhea, leading to internal and external bleeding.
The current outbreak has so far been confined to just three west African countries -- Guinea, neighboring Liberia, and most recently Sierra Leone -- but as the death of a Liberian national in Nigeria who was about to board a flight home to the U.S. shows, we're just one plane ride away from having this virus go global.
Dark continent, bright future
Africa is a mineral-rich continent, with the U.S. Geological Survey ranking it as No. 1 or No. 2 in world reserves of bauxite, chromite, cobalt, industrial diamonds, manganese, phosphate rock, platinum-group metals, soda ash, and zirconium. Guinea itself is home to one of the world's richest mineral deposits, the $50 billion Simandou iron-ore resource.
The Ebola outbreak would seemingly pose a significant burden for the region. That could be particularly true for Sierra Leone, which the International Monetary Fund highlighted as having the strongest economy in sub-Saharan Africa in 2013, as its economy expanded over 16%. The nation is expected to maintain double-digit growth over the next two years, far outpacing any other country. When the virus struck in June, both London Mining and African Minerals were forced to impose travel restrictions on their employees.
The Financial Times reported that the IMF also says the ebola outbreak caused "subdued investment" in Guinea over the first half of this year, while just last week Liberia's assistant health minister said his country can no longer contain the virus's spread alone. Worse, the death of American Patrick Sawyer in Nigeria has health workers there trying to track down as many as 30,000 people who he might have been infected following his travels through four airports and his visit to the nation's most populous metropolis, the port city of Lagos.
Viewing situation through a different lens
Despite the breathless headlines about the Ebola virus turning into a global pandemic, and the deaths of several hundred victims, perhaps some perspective is needed.
While this situation is serious, the fact remains that thousands more people die every year from influenza in just the U.S. than are threatened by the Ebola outbreak. It's more the disease's horrific symptoms that instill such fear than any real probability this will turn into a version of the 1990s movie Outbreak.
Also, most mining operations tend to be located in remote regions of the country where travel to and from sites is limited. Development of Guinea's Simandou iron-ore deposits, for example, have been delayed because of a lack of infrastructure, while Rio Tinto only recently agreed to an investment framework with the government to build a 650-kilometer jungle railroad, construct a deepwater port at Morebaya, and develop supporting infrastructure. ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT) reports that its operations in Liberia, where about half the Ebola deaths have occurred, remain unaffected by the outbreak, though it is monitoring the situation.
iJET International COO John Rose told Bloomberg News that by staying on top of developments companies are prepared move at a moment's notice. The advisory firm to businesses and governments in the area said: "They can turn the switch on very quickly and move people."
Rich investment thesis remains intact
In short, there's little reason to believe mining interests will be anything more than temporarily affected by the disease's spread, even with its virulence. A more widespread outbreak in a more developed area might have proved problematic, but with west Africa only recently realizing its resource potential, the operations of miners sited in remote locales, and global health officials working to constrain the virus's spread further, industry investment should be only minimally curtailed, if at all.