Ebola is capturing the world’s attention as the most recent outbreaks in west and central Africa spread from largely remote areas, breaching the cement borders of urban centers. The virus’ reputation as a devastating killer is at least in part due to the late-stage symptoms many patients display, making even the most sturdy-stomached viewer shy away and shudder. Many believe that all of the known Ebola strands are largely contained to some of the world’s most remote areas, often identified as being “hotspots” for the virus’ breeding grounds. While that appears to be more or less the case, another Ebola-like virus does exist, and it is right here in the United States.
Aptly named “Reston-virus,” the Ebola “look alike” made its debut in the Washington D.C. suburb of Reston, Virginia in 1989. A delivery of primates from the Philippines arrived in the suburban laboratory, and quite simply, everything appeared to be in order. Order turned into confusion, however, when many of the animals began to fall ill, and at an unbelievable rate. The virus silently and swiftly made its way through the primate population, infecting the creatures, often times culminating in their deaths. From this unusual and alarming discovery, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) quickly isolated the virus, keeping under a sterile lock-and-key.
However, the Reston incident was not the only reported outbreak. In 1996, the World Health Organization noted that the Reston virus made an appearance in a Texas laboratory after it, too, received a delivery of primates from the Philippines. Scientists identified two infected primates, prompting the standard quarantine protocol in order to isolate the virus. At the time, it appeared that the Ebola-like virus was largely circulating in non-human primates. “Largely” being the operative term, as, during these two U.S. outbreaks, several humans (animal handlers and laboratory workers) were infected as well. Luckily, extensive testing and monitoring revealed that infected humans did not run the risk of experiencing the same, devastating consequences of the virus, unlike their primate counterparts. The scientists and animal handlers infected in both the 1989 and 1996 outbreaks did not report any significant maladies, causing a huge sigh of relief rippling across the medical community.
With the wariness and healthy doses of skepticism that exists within these medical environments, professionals turned their attention to a new set of questions. Are the persons who have the Reston virus’ antibodies (that is, formerly infected from the outbreaks) able to spread it to other humans? Are primates necessary in the transmission of the virus to a human host? At the time, it appeared that the cases infected persons remained contained to the United States. The Reston virus was not presenting in any other human cases, it seemed, until November 2009. The seemingly slick virus cropped up in a population pigs in 2008, and one year later, it made the jump to humans. Where were these new transmissions happening? Once again, the Ebola virus’ “cousin” appeared to be making itself cozy and right at home in the Philippines.
A 2009 summit of the World Health Organization convened in Geneva, aimed at addressing the rising concern over human infection and the possibility of an endemic event. Months of testing showed professionals that infected persons in the Philippines, like the infected persons in the United States, did not present with any apparent illness.
So are people in the United States susceptible to the Reston virus? Not likely. Not only is the number of infected persons extremely low, but it appears that this strand of the Ebola-like virus is not harmful to humans. Nonetheless, medical professionals qualify this, stating that while the tests run on persons infected by the Reston virus were healthy adults, not enough research has been conducted on other populations. People who are generally more susceptible to illness, pregnant women, and elderly populations have not been subject to testing, as, there has not been a need. When it comes to the Reston virus, people have no need to panic; it may exist in the United States, but humans are apparently impervious to the virus’ effects.
By Hayden Freed