Ebola in America–The Chilling True Story of a Viral Outbreak on US Soil

Ebola virus

Ebola virus

Plagues have stalked humanity ever since we settled down from our roaming nomadic lifestyles, and probably well before that. Few things struck fear in the hearts of our ancestors like an epidemic of plague. Despite folkloric signs of an oncoming plague, the ancients had no way of really knowing when a disease would strike, and when one did, no way to combat it. That, of course, didn’t stop them from trying to use diseases as a weapon.

These days, we have a better understanding of how diseases work, and the ability to identify them and take preventive measures before they get out of hand. The light of technology has driven the monsters of plague away, in the industrialized world anyway. Still, that doesn’t mean that modern day plagues are any less terrifying. HIV/AIDS swept across the world before anyone knew what was happening, and only a few years ago a swine flue pandemic overcame any attempt to stop it.

The most mysterious–and terrifying–of these modern scourges is Ebola. A highly contagious blood born pathogen, Ebola causes catastrophic internal bleeding in its victims organs. It is characterized by high fevers, bleeding from every orifice, and severe stomach pain. Depending on the strain, Ebola has a mortality rate of between 50-90%.

So far, every Ebola outbreak has been contained to Africa, where the virus primarily preys on nonhuman primates. At this very moment, an outbreak of Ebola is raging through West Africa, stoking fears that it might flare out of control and spread to the industrialized West. However, this would not be the first time Ebola had raged on American soil. The dreaded disease broke out in 1989 at the Reston Primate Quarantine Unit in Reston, Virginia, only ten miles from Washington, DC.


A mysterious illness

The Reston Primate Quarantine Unit, better known to locals as “the Monkey House,” served as a way point of sorts for monkeys from all over the world. They stayed in the Monkey House for between 40 to 90 days, and had to pass three tuberculosis tests performed two weeks apart before they could be shipped to their final home.

A crab-eating macaque. Image Credit: Sakurai Midori

A crab-eating macaque.
“Ngarai Sianok sumatran monkey” by Sakurai Midori – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ngarai_Sianok_sumatran_monkey.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ngarai_Sianok_sumatran_monkey.jpg

On October 2, 1989, a shipment of 100 crab-eating macaques arrived at the Reston facility, and were quickly put in Room F of the Hazelton facility. By the beginning of November, 100 monkeys were dead. Necropsies performed on their bodies found that their spleens had tripled in size and become hard, and found blood in their intestines. The veterinarian on staff diagnosed the monkeys with simian hemorrhagic fever virus, a devastating virus known to wipe out monkeys wholesale.

To be certain, the vet sent samples to the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infection Diseases (USAMRIID.) Scientists at the Army facility agreed with the vet’s original diagnosis. Lab workers back at the Hazelton facility began to euthanize the surviving monkeys in the quarantine room, but too late; monkeys in other rooms began to fall ill and die of the mysterious disease.

Another Army scientist back at USAMRIID took a second look at the original sample, and much to his horror found that Ebola was responsible for killing the monkeys. Worse, further testing showed signs that it was the most virulent and deadly strain of Ebola–Ebola Zaire, which in humans has a 90% fatality rate. Once USAMRIID verified that the virus was indeed Ebola Zaire, the next day it convened a meeting of federal and state health officials, including representatives from the CDC, USAMRIID, and the Virginia Department of Health to decide what to do about the outbreak. The CDC  would handle any humans infected with the dread virus, while USAMRIID would take care of the Monkey House and its resident primates. Any monkeys still alive in the facility were to be euthanized.


Decontamination and demolition

USAMRIID3While all this was going on, workers at the Hazelton facility continued to work with the monkeys, unprotected. Imagine their surprise when a bunch of Army vets descended on the facility in full hazmat gear! On November 30,  Army vets began the process of euthanizing the remaining crab-eating macaques using a cocktail of anesthetics. A week later, USAMRIID sent 91 soldiers, broke into two man teams, to the facility to put down the rest of the monkeys, 450 in all. The teams were inexperienced with both their equipment and the animals they were euthanizing. They used the same methods to kill the monkeys as were used with the crab-eating macaques.

During the process, one of the monkeys escaped. No one wanted to shoot the rogue primate, and no tranq guns or devices for capture were available. Despite the soldier’s best efforts, they weren’t able to catch the monkey that day. The next day, after expending a lot of time and effort looking for the escapee, soldiers found the monkey stuck in a crack. It was euthanized soon after.

Extensive decontamination began that afternoon. The facility was scrubbed and bleached from top to bottom. The the building was “cooked” for three days, using electric fry pans that were piled with formaldehyde crystals. The formaldehyde and heat would kill any remaining viral particles in the facility.


A new virus

Two workers at the Monkey House were hospitalized. Despite the virulence of the virus, the workers recovered. Puzzled by this, researchers took a second look at the virus. They found that the virus was a new strain of Ebola, which they dubbed Ebola Reston. While lethal in monkeys, it was evidently not in humans. Chillingly, the virus was the first evidence that Ebola wasn’t isolated to Africa–the crab-eating macaques originated in the Philippines. Also, this strain of the virus could apparently go airborne, since it spread from room to room without the normal exposure to blood or body fluids needed to spread Ebola Zaire.

The facility at Reston remained closed after the outbreak. Despite being put up for sale, no buyers wanted a building that had seen the only Ebola outbreak on US soil, even if it had been thoroughly decontaminated. It has sense been demolished, and a new building built on the site. Now the site is home to a preschool.


C Berry-Cabán. Reston’s Hot Zone ─ 20 Years Later. The Internet Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2010 Volume 2 Number 1.