Ebola's Dogged Enemies
Sunday, October 2, 2005
By Day 3, Tom Geisbert knew the monkeys were going to die.
He could see it in their faces as he entered the monkey room in Suite AA-4, wearing the china-blue plastic spacesuit that serves as a uniform for the scientists of Fort Detrick's U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases when they are working with the world's most vicious viruses.
Healthy monkeys in the Biosafety Level 4 lab would often react to his suit by jumping, screeching and beating on their cages. But these monkeys glared sullenly at Geisbert with bloodshot eyes and expressionless faces.
It was Oct. 25, 1999. Geisbert had devoted nearly a decade to finding a vaccine for Ebola. Now he was waiting to see whether the vaccine he'd given the monkeys would provide any protection against the Ebola raging inside their bodies.
He pulled on the back of the cage, and a false wall expanded, slowly pressing a monkey against the bars, where Geisbert jabbed it in the thigh with anesthetic. Fifteen minutes later, he pulled the sedated primate from its cage. He drew blood: The white blood cell count was plummeting. The vaccine for a disease more lethal than smallpox was failing. It was a bad day in the fight against Ebola.
It would take four more years of such days before Geisbert and his team would make a breakthrough that could save lives by offering protection from an epidemic or a bioterrorism attack.
Each day, Geisbert steeled himself to witness the ravages of the virus.
When he checked on the monkeys on Day 4, the biscuit trays in front of some cages were full; the monkeys had stopped eating. By Day 5, he could see rashes on their arms and chests. On Day 7, the monkeys began to die.
By Day 11, as he dissected the last dead animal, Geisbert was resigned to starting all over again.
The Drawing Board
Ebola has fascinated Geisbert, 43, since he first looked at the tiny particle through an electron microscope, noting its spaghetti-like shape with the characteristic shepherd's crook on the end. Not long after, he co-discovered a strain that had broken out among research monkeys in Reston -- a tale that made its way into Richard Preston's 1994 bestseller "The Hot Zone" and made Geisbert a celebrity in the science world. He had made little progress since, testing four vaccine solutions, all of which had worked in mice but failed in monkeys.
Geisbert was exasperated, and so was his wife, Joan, who had worked in the lab longer than he had. "We share the same frustration and hard work that went into a lot of failed . . . studies: all the hours, all the time," he recalled. "We have always been, I'd say, just short of obsessed with getting the vaccines."
Geisbert knew that every time he and Joan went into the lab, they were risking their lives. Not that they were doing anything more dangerous than anyone else at the institute, a center for biodefense research in Frederick and one of only a handful of labs in the United States allowed to work with deadly, incurable diseases. The PhDs who swarmed the halls dealt with these things every day.