BOOKS

The lurking plague

How a sinister virus caused panic in Washington

MARK NICHOLS October 31 1994
BOOKS

The lurking plague

How a sinister virus caused panic in Washington

MARK NICHOLS October 31 1994

The lurking plague

How a sinister virus caused panic in Washington

THE HOT ZONE By Richard Preston (Random House, 300 pages, $31)

The panic started when some monkeys from the Philippines began dying of a mysterious illness. It was the fall of 1989, and the animals— long-tailed macaques destined for medical and scientific research—were being held at a quarantine facility in Reston, Va. A veteri-

narian decided to send a blood sample from an infected monkey to a nearby U.S. army centre specializing in infectious diseases. There, scientists made a horrifying discovery: the monkeys appeared to be victims of an agent belonging to one of the most deadly family of viruses ever detected. Known as filoviruses, some varieties can attack every organ in the human body, causing an excruciating death within weeks. Faced with that prospect, the U.S. government acted swiftly, sending army specialists into the Reston facility, where they systematically exterminated more than 500 monkeys. In the end, the outbreak was contained and no human lives were lost.

The Hot Zone tells that story in minute detail. And what makes it as rivetting as most fictional thrillers is the premise that events at Reston could have had a very different ending: if a virus many times more deadly than the one that causes

AIDS had escaped into the human population of Virginia’s populous Fairfax County and nearby Washington, the results would have been catastrophic.

That scenario has galvanized television and movie producers: at one point this summer, Hollywood had two movies under way about a monkey-borne killer virus. After buying the rights to The Hot Zone, 20th CenturyFox’s plans for a film adaptation collapsed when stars Jodie Foster and Robert Redford became dissatisfied with the story line and walked out of the project. Outbreak, based loosely on the events at Reston, is currently in production at Warner Bros., starring Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo. Meanwhile, on Nov. 1, CBC television will air a one-hour documentary, The Plague Monkeys, which tells the story of Reston’s infected monkeys in the larger context of the socalled emerging viruses. They include HIV, which causes AIDS, and other deadly life

forms that have appeared in recent years as economic development disrupts previously isolated ecological systems in Africa and other regions of the world.

The Hot Zone, which expands on an article by Preston in a 1992 issue of The New Yorker, recounts the sinister history of the “Ebola” family of filoviruses that are close relatives of the strain found in the Reston monkeys. The first outbreak, in Marburg, Germany, in 1967, killed seven employees of a pharmaceutical

company that used monkeys imported from Uganda to produce vaccines. In 1976, new filovirus outbreaks in Africa killed hundreds of people in Zaïre and southern Sudan before they were contained. The filovirus outbreak in Zaire, in villages along the Ebola River, proved to be the most deadly, with a 90-percent fatality rate. The Hot Zone describes in gruesome detail the torment suffered by a man infected by an Ebola-like virus in Kenya in 1980. The victim, writes Preston, “appears to be holding himself rigid, as if any move ment would rupture something inside him. His liver, kidneys, lungs, hands, feet and head are becoming jammed with blood clots. In effect, he is having a stroke through the whole body. His personality is being wiped away by brain damage.”

The background of the Ebola viruses—for which there are no vaccines—sets the scene for the climactic section of The Hot Zone. Wearing space-suit-like protective clothing

and carrying their own air supplies, U.S. army specialists enter the Reston facility to begin killing the infected monkeys with lethal injections. Before they start, Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax, a U.S. army veterinary pathologist, warns members of the team, “Monkeys move real quick. A bite would be a death warrant. Be exquisitely careful.” At one point, a monkey escapes and leads the army specialists on a lengthy chase before he is caught and killed. Finally, six days after the killing began, all the monkeys have been dispatched. The army specialists then seal the quarantine buildings and fill them with formaldehyde fumes to destroy any living creature that remains inside. “Ebola had met opposition,” writes Preston. “For a short while, until life could re-establish itself there, the Reston Primate Quarantine Unit was the only building in the world where nothing lived, nothing at all.”

As it turned out, the monkeys need not have been killed, because the virus they carried—although a close relative of the deadly Marburg and Ebola strains—proved to be harmless to humans. Four Reston workers became infected by it, but none became ill. Clearly, the decision to mount a militarystyle operation against the infected monkeys was more than justified at the time. But the fact that Preston conceals the truth about the virus’s relatively benign nature until near the end of the book may leave some readers feeling that they have been had. On the other hand, Preston’s warning that a highly infectious and lethal virus may someday emerge from the rain forests of Africa to threaten the industrialized world is a prospect that worries many virologists. “Ebola,” concludes Preston, “had flashed its colors, fed, and subsided into the forest. It will be back.”

MARK NICHOLS