How a Virginia suburb became an Ebola epicenter

It’s a little known fact, or perhaps a dark matter best forgotten, but the child care facility on Isaac Newton Square in Reston, Va., was once the epicenter of a new strain of Ebola.

As cars rush by the suburban landscape just 20 minutes from the nation’s capital, it’s hard to imagine that 25 years ago, soldiers in spacesuits were moving in and out of  a “monkey house” there – a building where primates shipped into the U.S. for research were quarantined by a private company, Hazelton Research Products, before being delivered to laboratories across the country.

But the monkeys there were dying. And as it turned out, they were dying from Ebola.

Specialists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRID) not far away in Frederick County, Md., made the initial diagnosis. After consulting with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), they led a team of specialists and soldiers from an animal unit to euthanize the monkeys and test them, as well as sterilize Hazelton. It was December 1989.

The CDC was also on the ground – to make sure the monkey handlers at Hazelton were not infected, too. They weren’t.

“It turned out, unbelievably at the time, that the strain of the virus that killed the monkeys was almost as virulent as the African strain – even though the caretakers were not infected,” recalled Dr. Frederick Murphy, a pathologist and professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch. At the time, he was director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the CDC, and one of the high-level officials called to Reston to assess the monkey outbreak.

Murphy had been there when Ebola was named in 1976; he was the first person to photograph the virus with an electron microscope. He also helped discover the Marburg virus, a sister to Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan – and now Ebola Reston – in the 1960s. All four, plus the Tai Forest and Bundibgyo strains, are “filoviruses,” distinguished under a microscope by their rope-like features, often with hooks, crooks or squiggles. They are deadly, and Ebola Zaire, the strain that is raging through Sierra Leone, Liberia and all of Guinea in West Africa, is the worst.

Murphy and other “virus hunters” of the era were featured in The Hot Zone, an account of the Reston outbreak and the evolution of Ebola written by Richard Preston in 1995. The book – written like a thriller -- is experiencing a resurgence; it was No. 7 on the New York Times Combined Print and e-Book Non-Fiction best sellers’ list in late August before dropping to No. 19 this month.

Relying on interviews, Preston chronicled how the monkeys, which were shipped to the U.S. from the Philippines, began to die in their cages, one by one, in November 1989. They were wild crab-eating macaques, and they came in shipments of 100. The director of the lab noticed that the infected monkeys would experience flu-like symptoms before succumbing. Autopsies revealed that they had “bled out” from the inside, the trademark death of Ebola and Marburg.

Samples of their internal organs were sent to Fort Detrick, and they stunned the specialists there. It was Ebola. And they knew that the director of the lab and staff had not taken any precautions when they performed the autopsies. Ebola is extremely contagious, and, up until then, was known to pass from human to human through bodily fluids, like blood. In known cases in Africa, people had become infected by kissing corpses during funeral rites.

Murphy remembers being called out to Fort Detrick and shown the slides of the virus detected in the monkeys. He had been gathered with civilian and Army officials – including his friend, Maj. Gen. Phillip K. Russell, the head of USAMRID – in a large conference room, and the atmosphere was tense. “It was as though (Russell) wanted to see my expression. He was just watching me as I was looking at the pictures, to see if I believed it was Ebola,” Murphy recalled in a phone interview.

“Of course I believed it,” he said. “I was shocked. It was hundreds of monkeys involved right there in Reston.”

He said everyone’s mind turned to the full weight of what was happening. What if Ebola got into the general population? Were the handlers infected? And just as troubling: Why were monkeys in another contained room dying? Had the virus mutated? Was it now being transmitted through the air?

“I can still remember that day,” Murphy said. “Everyone at that table was very concerned that this was going to be a very dangerous episode.”

In the end, the soldiers put down some 450 monkeys. One tried to escape, causing a hair-raising chase. The monkeys had sharp canines and hated humans, and everyone believed a bite would mean certain death to the victim, Preston wrote. In the end, the monkey was caught and euthanized, and the building was thoroughly decontaminated. Four caretakers had been infected by the virus, but they did not get sick. Thus Ebola Reston, which, unlike the other strains, doesn’t affect humans, was named.

It may have been the first time the infection spread through the air – they think it was through the air ducts – because it infected monkeys that weren’t in the same room. This is the basis for today’s debate over whether Ebola can be transmitted through the lungs, a discussion that has never been fully resolved, Murphy said.

Hazelton reopened for business, and to everyone’s dismay, another shipment from the Philippines brought Ebola once again. The facility was closed for good after that, and tough restrictions have pretty much ended monkey importation into the country. Monkeys used for lab research are bred in the U.S. now.

And the building on Isaac Newton Square? According to local reports, it was never reoccupied, despite many decontaminations. It was as though it were haunted. Eventually it was torn down and replaced by the child care building.

“The entire building died,” Preston wrote in his book. “The Army didn’t have to nuke it. It was nuked by the Ebola Reston virus.”