Book I Read:The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston

The other book I read this week was The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston.

This tells the story of the only known outbreak of the Ebola virus in the United States.  It occurred at a monkey quarantine facility in Reston Virginia in 1989.  The outbreak was managed by the CDC and USAMARIID, the Army's Biological Laboratory.  This book does an excellent job of discussing in layman's terms what we know about Ebola, Marbug, and Filovirii in general.  It also talks through the way that the incident response was handled at the Reston facility.  The latter is quite frightening. 

The funniest part of the book is when the doctors enter the Monkey facility in full level 4 biological protective gear, and come face-to-face with the animal handlers in street clothes.  The handlers suddenly realize the gravity of the situation and flee.  I cannot help but giggle at the imagined look of stunned panic they must have had when seeing space-suited Doctors coming in through the airlock.

The book has a couple of terrifying parts.  Ebola is a scary disease.  Understanding that, I can't believe that two medically trained professionals at USAMARIID would choose to conceal their exposure instead of voluntarily submitting to quarantine.  That is grossly irresponsible.  The other scary part is the monkey-facility-company's refusal to take the infection seriously.  I suspect this was largely because ebola wasn't in the public consciousness then.  People didn't know how serious it could be.  I wonder how this would be handled differently today, in our post-9/11 world.

Long story short, America dodged a bullet with this incident.  If this had been one of the "bad" strains of ebola, like Ebola Zaire, we could have lost huge swaths of population around DC before the outbreak was controlled.  This wouldn't have been an extinction event, but it would have changed the world.

An interesting thought occurred to me while reading the history of ebola.  A commonality of two index patients of separate, non-US, outbreaks was found.  Both were infected after visiting a specific cave that was made when ancient volcanic ashfall engulfed a prehistoric forest.  One of the behaviors of the virus is that it forms crystalline brick-like structures during the amplification state before it ruptures the cell walls.  I'm curious if the scientists on the cave expedition ever thought to attempt to culture any samples of the rocks in the cave walls.  It would be incredible if a virus had managed to survive for eons in the rock of the cave and this seems stunningly unlikely, but ...?

I'm doubly curious about this as the infection appeared to start in the fingertips of the second patient, a Danish boy.  I'm triply curious, as this virus is known to disappear for years, and then come creeping back out of the jungle again.  Occam's razor suggests that it probably has an animal host during these time gaps, but a rock > bat > human or rock > elephant > human transmission vector would be scientifically fascinating.

(No, I'm not going to kick off an expedition for this.  Ebola, or any other hemorrhagic disease, is firmly in the not-my-cup-of-tea category.)

This author has another book that's just come out.  I understand it is about bioterrorism and smallpox. For non-fiction, his books read like an action novel, and I'm definitely going to try to find a copy today.