The Monkey House

“The power of biological weapons is ten times more than nuclear power. Unless we act fast with an open mind, any one of them can extinct the human race.” – Amit Ray, Nuclear Weapons Free World-Peace on Earth

I have a confession to make. The idea of biological warfare scares the crap out of me. But, unlike a nuclear weapon that will explode and destroy a given area, a biological weapon can be much more insidious. They don’t make a huge flash of bright white light and a deafening bang that can be heard from miles around, you just become infected with a horrible biological agent, and you die. And depending on the agent, there is not much that can prevent the spread of disease.

I attended the Army Academy of Health Sciences at Fort Sam Houston as part of my military training. It was there that I learned about Ebola Reston. Reston, as in the Virginia town of 61,000 people in suburban Washington, DC. Parts of the briefings on the Reston case were classified and will remain so. Today, I will only discuss what is available in the public record, but that’s scary enough.

It was called “the monkey house.” Hundreds and hundreds of monkeys from around the world were shipped to this average-looking building along the main drag in Reston. The public did not know what was inside; this was a holding facility for primates that would eventually become subjects in biological experiments nationwide. But, in 1989, there was a big problem.

The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) is located at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Scores of monkeys started dying for no apparent reason. Tests were conducted on the deceased animals. To the horror of the scientists, the cause of death was found to be Ebola, one of the most lethal diseases known to man. The Army was called in on a “primate containment” mission. According to the historical website Boundry Stones, scientists at USAMRIID tested the samples repeatedly and found Ebola every time.

Philip Russell, the Major General in charge of the US Army Medical Research and Development Command at the time, was quoted as having said to a small group of colleagues, “This is an infectious threat of major consequences.” Staff working with the monkeys were tested; some had seroconverted, testing positive for the Ebola virus. It was decided that the CDC would take care of sick people, and the Army would handle the monkeys.

In early December, soldiers were sent to the monkey house to euthanize over 450 possibly infectious primates. They arrived at the facility in civilian vehicles and wearing civilian clothes so as not to arouse suspicion. Inside the facility, they donned personal protective equipment. Inside, Nova reported that several monkeys had glazed looks in their eyes and blood oozing from bodily orifices. One of the infected primates escaped from quarantine and was caught hours later. To safely dispatch the animals, they were held down with long poles and injected from a distance.

We, meaning the whole country, dodged a bullet on this one. As it turned out, the monkeys indeed had Ebola, but their particular strain does not make humans sick. What are the odds of that? The newly discovered strain was named Ebola Reston, in honor of the home of the monkey house. USAMRIID and CDC began working on an ebola vaccine after that. So yes, an Ebola vaccine exists today.