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October 13, 2014

That 24-Hour Ebola

Steven R. Berryman

Greetings from the land of Anthrax and Bruce Ivins. People round Frederick, Maryland and Fort Detrick take the consequences of the spread of pathogens more seriously than most.


Problem with Ebola – speaking containment now – is that the first symptoms mimic that of a severe flu.


So many have the potential to miss early intervention, quarantine, and life-saving interventions. Should the known outbreaks – or one from one of our local labs – outgrow our ability to fire-wall the spread, certain diagnostics will be problematic.


So, what special steps have the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and our local enforcers, put into place to make certain we are not engulfed in some global biological tragedy of short-sightedness? Not enough as I sample media reports today.


A doctor returning from a “hot zone” was reportedly not even questioned upon re-entry into our country at an entrance point. Illegals are not routinely screened medically. And some travel over our southern borders from lands as exotic as Liberia.


The potential militarization and accidental proliferation of Level 4 biologic agents has been a concern of mine since Michael Crichton’s seminal 1969 speculative sci-fi book “The Andromeda Strain.” It’s all about containment, and planning for worst case scenarios.


When will we become serious enough to marshal our resources in education, precautions, and first local response to infectious disease outbreak?


Perhaps it’s our military posture relative to “offensive capability” of infectious-contagious disease that sets us off guard. Then President Richard M. Nixon formally ended our “Research and Development” into an on-the-shelf offensive capability of all biological agents.


Well, so it would seem: The problem is almost one of semantics; although, on the record the above is correct. In truth we harbor lethal agents and test them for peaceful “defensive” uses, you know, in case this stuff gets used on us.  Good, right, for cases like now, right?


But what kinds of planning have we been doing?


Africa has been a known source of origin for the recent Ebola outbreak. This is widely acknowledged.


What is less widely known is that American Army doctors routinely test prototype agents in Africa, on clandestine missions where only plain clothed Army doctors participate. This is presumably under some formally arranged accord with the host countries involved. Money, you know. We also call it foreign aid.


Some of the testing in Africa – that I have personally gotten wind of – include some used to test the natural spread of “dumbed down” infectious diseases. In essence, we mutate laboratory strains of bad diseases into (presumably) benign forms. An Ebola that merely causes a common cold instead of reliably killing, for instance.


In this way we can be forearmed about patterns, timing, and durations of infectious disease spread – but why are we not now taking advantage of this body of knowledge?


Here’s an even worse concept: What if a “dumbed down” mutated strain used in testing reverted back in some way into a deadly (or deadlier!) form, unbeknownst and unpredicted?


I’m keeping a weary-eye on the news of this Ebola outbreak, because it is impossible to be sure.


Is it a common influenza, or just a 24-hour Ebola?


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