Today there’s a Kindercare at 1946 Isaac Newton Square in Reston. But in 1989, it was the site of an Ebola nightmare in the making.
Where the day care center now stands was once home to Hazelton Research Products’ quarantine station for imported lab animals. In October 1989, a shipment of 100 monkeys from the Philippines arrived, and began to die.
At the time, Ebola had only been recently discovered, and was thought to be isolated to the rain forests of the African Congo. No one could have imagined what would happen next in the monkey house -- or that Northern Virginia would forever be linked by name to one of the most lethal viruses in human history.
“I think to this day, we’re not sure how dangerous this species [of the virus] is,” said Thomas Geisbert, the scientist who discovered what came to be called Ebola Reston. Likewise, he said, health officials still “don’t know much about” the current Ebola strain killing thousands in West Africa.
“We’re at the very beginning,” said Geisbert, now a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas medical branch in Galveston.
The world is experiencing the largest Ebola outbreak since the disease was discovered 38 years ago. Nearly 9,000 have become infected and more than 4,400 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization warns the virus threatens to become pandemic, widespread and out of control. In August, WHO officials declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.”
Since Ebola was discovered in 1976, the CDC has documented 34 individual outbreaks, with mortality rates ranging from 50 to almost 90 percent, according to the CDC.
Ebola enters the body through cuts, scrapes or mucous membranes, transmitted through body fluids such as blood, vomit and sweat. Once inside the body, it attacks virtually every cell, causing multiple organ system break down, according to the CDC. As the virus progresses, patients bleed under the skin, in the internal organs and from the mouth, eyes, ears and other orifices. It is what the CDC calls a “Biosafety Level 4” virus – highly infectious and highly lethal.
‘THIS IS EBOLA’
In 1989, at what was known as the “monkey house” in Reston, Ebola never crossed the minds of caretakers and researchers trying to find out why the crab-eating macaques from the Philippines kept getting sick and dying. After all, the monkeys weren’t from the rain forests of Africa, where the only known Ebola outbreaks had occurred.
But something was spreading fast through the Hazelton labs facility, and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., was tasked with figuring it out.
USAMRIID, known as the Institute, was the only Department of Defense facility that could handle research for “Biosafety Level 4” infectious diseases.
Tom Geisbert – a 27-year-old research intern just starting his career – was assigned to study samples from the monkey house under an electron microscope to try and identify what was happening.
Scientists at the Institute felt pretty sure that a common simian virus was wiping out the Reston monkeys.
“Simian hemorrhagic fever is similar to Ebola, but it doesn’t infect humans,” Geisbert said.
He put the samples under his microscope. “And I said, ‘This is Ebola.’”
At first, Geisbert’s boss, then-Army scientist Peter Jahrling, didn’t believe him. But test after test proved the truth.
“We were busy 24-7 running samples,” Geisbert said. But they were also thinking about all the samples they’d handled, which had arrived thawed and dripping blood at the Institute.
“You kind of start calculating in your mind,” Geisbert said. “When was I last exposed? How many days has it been?”
And, if the strain made the leap from monkey to human hosts, what about all the lab workers at the Reston monkey house? And all of the people they may have exposed?
450 MONKEYS KILLED
Meanwhile in Reston, all of the monkeys in one room at the facility were euthanized to prevent the spread of infection. But soon, monkeys in other rooms began getting sick and dying, though they had had no contact with the Philippines monkeys.
Army officials concluded that the Reston strain may have been airborne, spreading like a common cold or the flu. But Geisbert isn’t so sure.
“The virus is found in feces,” he said. “If you take a high-pressure hose, and blast it at monkey poop, the particles are going to spread. That’s not technically aerosol [transmission.]
Finally, in late November 1989, the Institute had formally identified the virus in Reston, and the process of dealing with a potential Ebola outbreak 22 miles from the nation’s capital began.
Grisly scenes from those panicked days at the monkey house are chronicled in Richard Preston’s 1994 book, “The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus.”
Soldiers in biohazard suits, monkeys pinned down with long poles and euthanized via injection from afar, television news satellite trucks camped outside. And sick monkeys, dozens of sick monkeys.
“Here and there, in rooms all over the building, some of the animals stared from glazed eyes in masklike faces, and some of them had blood running from their orifices. It landed on mental trays under their cages – ping, ping, ping,” Preston wrote.
All of the monkeys at the Reston facility, 450 of them, were euthanized.
Officials from the Virginia Department of Health and CDC monitored and tested the workers at Hazelton and the Institute who had been exposed to a new strain of Ebola that had proved so fatal to the monkeys. None of those exposed, Geisbert and Jahrling included, fell ill with the virus.
Then the building was decontaminated, an 11-day process that involved bleaching and sterilizing and the burning of formaldehyde crystals in electric frying pans, according to a paper entitled “Reston’s Hot Zone – 20 years later,” printed in the Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The new strain was named Ebola Reston, and it returned to the facility, again in monkeys imported from the Philippines, in 1990. Four lab workers tested positive for Ebola Reston antibodies, but never got sick, Geisbert said.
After the second outbreak, the Hazelton facility was demolished.
Today, parents drop off their children each day at the Kindercare where the monkey house once stood. Traffic whizzes by, and many of Northern Virginia’s busy commuters have no idea what happened there 25 years ago.
But the near miss of an Ebola epidemic in the nation’s capital set a lifelong path for Geisbert, who was born and raised in western Maryland. His father had been an engineer at the USAMRIID.
“I grew up there,” he said.
He’d always been interested in diseases, but his discovery of Ebola Reston led to a career of trying to understand, and stop, the deadly virus.
His lab received a $26 million grant this year to develop vaccines against Ebola, and introduced a drug, VSV Ebola, that is now in clinical trials at Walter Reed Army hospital in Maryland.
Geisbert says he’s fascinated by pathogenesis, the study of how diseases develop and mutate.
But when he’s home at his ranch in Galveston, watching the “west Texas sun go down” and reflecting on a life chasing down a disease bent on death, there’s really only one reason he does what he does.
“At the end of the day, I want to do something good,” he said.