Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ebola Follies, Part 1

I'm reading "The Hot Zone," a book about an actual Ebola outbreak in the DC area. (I hate it when that happens.) It was about 20 years ago, and started at a monkey house in Reston. ("Which one?" you ask? Reston has so many.)

Monkeys imported to the U.S. were quarantined for a month, to make sure they weren't carrying a disease. After an unusual number started dying, the company vet sent samples to U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Maryland. "Samples," meaning a test tube and chunks of monkey flesh in aluminum foil.

"Jharling ... remarked, 'Good thing this ain't Marburg [an Ebola cousin]' and they chuckled. Later that day, he called Dalgard ... 'Let me tell you how to send a sample to us. People around here might be sllightly paranoid, but they get a little upset when you send a sample and it drips on the carpet.'"
The Army scientists studied the samples in their Level 3 lab, where they dress like surgeons and go through a decontamination shower when they leave -- as opposed to the Level 4 lab, where they dress in spacesuits and work with the really, really bad stuff -- like Ebola. They figured it was probably Simian Hemorrhagic Fever, which is nasty stuff for monkeys, but doesn't affect humans.

They cultured samples in flasks with healthy monkey cells. They later found that the cells in the samples were "very sick, because the fluid was milky and clouded with dead cells, cells that had exploded." (Hate it when that happens.) All the flasks were like that.

They figured it was an annoying and common problem where a culture gets contaminated by a wild strain of bacteria -- one that's harmless, but which consumes the cell culture. It leaves a bad odor, whereas viruses don't leave any smell.
"Jahrling unscrewed the little black cap, and waved his hand over the flask to bring the scent to his nose,  and then he took a whiff. Hmm. Funny. No smell. ... He offered the flask to Tom. Tom sniffed it. There was no smell. Jarhling took the flask back and whiffed it again..."
Preview of future chapters:
"Jharling chose not to mention to the general that he might have sniffed just a little bit of it. Anyway, he hadn't sniffed it, he only whiffed it. ... He hadn't jammed the flask up to his nose and snorted it or anything like that."

"...if the Army decided to move in on the monkey house. There would be people at the CDC [Centers for Disease Contol] who would be furious, jealous of their turf."

"General Russell ... boomed, 'So the next question is, who the f*** is going to pay for it?'"
Remember, this is a true story.

[Click here to read Ebola Follies, Part 2.]