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As someone with a background in intelligence, I’m accustomed to helping people understand the gravest national security threats our nation faces. But I’ll admit to being as confused as anyone during the latest outbreak of the Ebola virus, which instantly crippled the American psyche – sowing fear and panic in a matter of hours, just like acts of terrorism possess the capacity to do.
So I was both excited – and admittedly a little apprehensive – when TechKnow asked me to visit Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (the NEIDL) – where Ebola and other deadly pathogens will soon be quarantined for study and research. While the NEIDL had yet to “go hot” – that is, become host to these lethal diseases – during the time of our visit, it will be fully operational this year as a Biosafety Level 4 (or BSL-4) lab. BSL-4 labs, of which there are only a handful in the country, are the medical research equivalent of Supermax prisons.
So it was no surprise to find security at the NEIDL tight; I can’t go into details about the layers of security and protocol at the facility, but suffice it to say, the place was more locked down than CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Given the sorts of lethal viruses that will be housed within the NEIDL, it was also no surprise that the facility was met with controversy. Just as residents might fear escaped criminals at large in their neighborhoods, so too were locals gravely concerned about the possibility of deadly pathogens leaking into their densely populated urban community of Boston’s South End.
But “virus hunters” like the researchers I met inside the NEIDL - and very much like CIA operatives and analysts – hold true a fundamental precept of the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: Know thine enemy. In order to combat and contain deadly diseases, we first need to study and understand them. And in the case of viruses, this needs to happen up-close and in person. Viruses are even more challenging to track than terrorist networks in large part because of the sheer number of them, and also because of their ability to mutate.
One of the first things I’m often asked about having been a field operative for the CIA is – did you ever fear for your life? It was the same question I had for the scientists at the NEIDL. Truly, what kind of person would want to do this kind of work – coming into contact with deadly pathogens as part of your daily routine? Who are these virus hunters, and what makes them tick were questions at the forefront of my mind.
One of the first scientists I met was Dr. Paul Duprex – a twinkly-eyed Northern Irishman whose small stature stands in inverse proportion to his enormous energy. Dr. Duprex is an expert in “zoonosis”—that is, diseases that jump from animals to humans. He explained how Ebola is believed to have come from fruit bats; and with enthusiasm as infectious as the diseases he studies, Dr. Duprex showed me how he uses powerful microscopes and a technique called recombinant DNA to predict the evolution of pathogens. Sitting with Dr. Duprex before his mighty – not to mention half a million dollar! – microscope, I found myself mesmerized by the colorful time-lapse imagery showing viruses in the process of spreading and mutating.
I also met with Dr. Elke Muhlberger – a leading expert of filoviruses – of which Ebola is one of only two that have been identified. Filoviruses like Ebola and Marburg are distinguished by the deadly hemorrhagic fever they cause. A veteran of BSL-4 level research, Dr. Muhlberger has spent countless hours in a positive pressure suit, something I also had the opportunity to try on. I found this heavily reinforced rubber spacesuit, which has its own air supply and is necessary for conducting BSL-4 research, cumbersome and claustrophobic. I couldn’t imagine wearing that get-up for up to fours hours (no bathroom breaks?!) as researchers like Dr. Muhlberger do, let alone nimbly handling samples of deadly pathogens through the awkward rubber gloves. But Dr. Muhlberger described working in a PPS as “heaven,” and even admitted to dancing by herself in the lab when she once made an important discovery.
In addition to Drs. Muhlberger and Duprex, Dr. John Connor brought it all down to a pragmatic level for me. With a team of graduate student engineers, Dr. Connor is developing a portable device that can diagnose Ebola quickly on the ground. This kind of technology is desperately needed in the places like West Africa where Ebola hit hardest. Preventing transmission is next to impossible in remote areas where it might take days to get samples to a lab. With Dr. Connor’s cutting edge photo-technology that illuminates and identifies viruses in a portable device, doctors will be able to diagnose the disease in about an hour. Early diagnoses is the first and arguably most critical step in containment.
I left the NEIDL with a new found understanding of deadly pathogens, and a profound respect for the virus hunters who seek to study and understand them. Just as the men and women with whom I used to work at the CIA are at the tip of the spear in safeguarding our nation from terrorism, the scientists at the NEIDL face our deadliest enemies head-on, standing too at the forefront of a battle that’s unlikely to ever end.