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Does importing primates push Ebola risk too high?

Ebola virus

April 16, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Jeff Levine

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Army scientists near Washington are studying blood samples from monkeys thought to carry the Ebola virus. If the tests are positive, it will mean the worst for the primates, now being housed at a Texas facility.


"Basically, the animals are doomed. At this point, it's reasonable to assume all the animals have been exposed," said Dr. Peter Jahrling of the U.S. Army. The animals, imported from the Philippines, are infected with a strain of the Ebola virus known as Ebola Reston.

Current evidence indicates that humans can't be sickened by Ebola Reston. During a 1989 outbreak of the strain at a primate facility in Reston, Virginia, four people were exposed, but didn't get sick. As in Texas, the monkeys in the Virginia outbreak all came from the same exporter.

Scientists say Ebola Reston is transmitted through the air. The deadly Ebola Zaire, on the other hand, is spread through blood and other bodily fluids. An outbreak in Zaire last year killed 245 people.

"We've been dealing with Ebola Reston for nearly seven years, and in the Ebola Restons we've seen, we do not see illness occur in humans," said Bob Howard, who works at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. (145K AIFF sound or 145K WAV sound)

Monkey huts

However, just because Ebola Reston doesn't hurt humans now doesn't mean it can't change. In the 20 years since scientists first encountered the Ebola virus, they have learned much about its extraordinary ability to mutate into different forms.

Because it can mutate, said Gerald Stokes of George Washington University, even benign forms of Ebola have the potential to become fatal to humans.


"Any virus that has the ability to change or mutate theoretically has the possibility of becoming virulent -- that is a concern," Stokes said. (111K AIFF sound or 111K WAV sound)

Other scientists share Stokes' concern about a potentially dangerous mutation. "My concern has always been that when we encounter a virus as we have now, folks will let their guard down and say 'Oh, it's just Ebola Reston, it's not a problem.' It is a problem," Dr. Jahrling said.

The Ebola virus outbreak among primates in Texas has raised questions about importing these research animals. Is it safe? And are the risks justified?

U.S. public health officials say it is safe to bring primates into the country. The infected monkeys were discovered while still in quarantine, proving that the quarantine system works.


But Stokes believes that quarantine isn't good enough. He and other scientists say new import standards are needed, because current safety guidelines are inadequate for keeping out animals with exotic diseases such as Ebola.

Yet, scientists in the United States will probably continue to import primates for research purposes. They say it would be impossible to develop vaccines and other life-saving drugs without primate research.

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