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Monkeys in the hot zone.

Primate Experiments and Transplants Could Release Deadly Viruses Into the Human Population

Inside the white-coated world of U.S. university, commercial and military laboratories, about 55,000 primates are used each year to study a range of phenomenon, from brain disorders and sexually transmitted diseases to nuclear radiation and the toxicity of household products. An unwanted byproduct of their work is the stuff of sci-fi movies: strange, mutable viruses transmitted to unsuspecting persons who, in short order, become grotesque vehicles for the annihilation of the human race.

Such scenarios are neither remote nor dismissible. The history of monkey experimentation is, in fact, a chronicle of close-calls and direct hits of human slate-wipers, diseases conveyed from primates to humans for which there are often no cures. By the time certain primate-borne viruses are identified, the body of the afflicted person may have already been reduced to the consistency of tapioca pudding.

Dr. Stephen Morse, a Rockefeller University specialist in emerging viruses, has pointed out, "One of the major sources of sudden disease outbreak is viral traffic between species." The prevailing theory that HIV, for one, originated in primates is now recognized by the conservative National Institutes of Health. Primates can also transmit varied neurological disorders like Creutzfeld Jacob; Epstein-Barr; monkey pox; elephantiasis; leukemia; yellow fever; tuberculosis; rubella and rabies. And then there are the more exotic and insidious hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola and Marburg originating in sub-Saharan Africa, as described in Richard Preston's bestseller, The Hot Zone.

The book recounts the 1989 "Ebola Reston" scare in which a killer virus swept through a monkey colony housed at a Fort Detrick, Maryland military lab. There, "hot viruses" are designated into "zones" according to their severity. The hottest zone - where Ebola and Marburg grow - can only be entered wearing a helmeted body suit with self-contained oxygen, not unlike that worn by nuclear power plant workers.

Ebola and Marburg crush their victims' immune systems, and have killed thousands in Africa. Marburg first erupted in 1967 as a monkey-to-human disease in the town in Germany for which it was named. The lab there was importing green monkeys from Uganda.

It doesn't take much to start a species-jumping, domino effect of viral mutation. Viruses can easily travel by land, air, water or bodily fluids. The most obvious risk are lab workers handling wild-caught monkeys or those bred in colonies where viruses can flourish in hothouse-like conditions. Dr. Shirley McGreal, chairwoman of the International Primate Protection League (IPPL), describes these animals as "absolute viral hotbeds, little ticking time bombs."

How contained are these "time bombs"? Dr. Sy Kalter, president of the Virus Reference Lab in San Antonio, Texas, remembers an incident at a southwest primate lab in which "a couple of hundred baboons had, over time, unscrewed their cages" and escaped. "You're dealing with intelligent animals who do not want to be caged," Kalter says. At one Louisiana primate facility, macaque and rhesus monkey escapes are virtually routine. "Finding them is the hardest part," recalls a lab technician who has fished monkeys out of a nearby swamp.

Trucks carry infected primates on routes through communities, relaying a cargo that's potentially as volatile as nuclear fuel. In December 1994, a truckload of about 80 rhesus monkeys infected with herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis and tuberculosis was stopped on a routine traffic violation near Miami en route to a New Mexico lab, which is currently under federal investigation for suspicious animal deaths. The driver did not have the required transport permit, but he did have a letter from the lab shippers which falsely claimed that the animals were "free of infectious disease" and "posed no threat" to the public health. Monkey hosts of Herpes B are considered "fatal carriers" to humans.

In addition to frequent surface transport, airlines (unbeknownst to travelers) regularly transport primates.

Now there is yet another transmission vehicle which could effect human populations: cross-species transplants. In December, an AIDS patient in San Francisco, Jeff Getty, received an experimental bone marrow transplant from a baboon. Although the patient survived, the long-term chances of the operation's success are, according to the FDA's own panelists, "low." Despite the baboon's 93 percent genetic resemblance to humans, historically such transplant procedures have failed. These forays have, however, inflicted monkey viruses on the human recipient. Such was the case after a baboon liver transplant at the University of Pittsburgh. The 35-year-old patient contracted three monkey viruses; not all of which have been identified.

The National Institutes of Health don't dismiss the danger. "The fear that the baboon harbors a virus that is capable of triggering a deadly new human epidemic is not an hysterical fantasy," the agency says.

Nevertheless, researchers from Duke University Medical Center and the Nextran Corporation, a bio-tech company in Princeton, New Jersey, are going ahead with two new medical technologies involving genetically engineered pig livers.

Discounting the naysayers, the stage has been set to use animals for their spare body parts. Unfortunately, the possibility of human salvation may be outweighed by the very real opportunity for catastrophe.

CONTACT: International Primate Protection League, P.O. Box 766, Summerville, SC 29484/(803) 871-2280.
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Title Annotation:primate-borne viruses
Author:Reitman, Judith
Publication:E
Date:Mar 1, 1996
Words:855
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