NBAF not likely to study Ebola virus

By Megan Moser

A K-State expert on Ebola says the deadly virus won’t be studied at the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility under construction in Manhattan.

Jerry Jaax, K-State’s associate vice president for research compliance and university veterinarian, said as a biosecurity Level 4 lab, NBAF could handle research on Ebola. An outbreak of the virus in parts of Africa is reaching epidemic levels.

“We would have the capabilities, but we would not likely study it because it’s not an agricultural disease,” said Jaax, who works at K-State’s Olathe campus.

He said the virus poses a clear public health risk, but the scope of the work at NBAF is diseases that pose a clear risk to livestock, such as the highly infectious foot-and-mouth disease, to which cattle, sheep and other animals are susceptible.

“I can say with some assurance that they would not work on Ebola,” Jaax said.

Jaax also pointed out that other labs that study dangerous diseases are located in urban centers, so there’s very little risk to the surrounding community.

He and his wife, Nancy Jaax, a retired Army colonel and veterinary pathologist, were both working in a lab at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Reston, Virginia, when the virus was diagnosed in some monkeys there in 1989.

They said at that time, a commercial endeavor to import monkeys brought infected animals to the United States.

Nancy Jaax was part of a team that discovered the monkeys were infected with both Ebola and simian hemorrhagic fever virus. The former is spread only through bodily fluids but can be harmful to humans. The latter is spread through the air but is only harmful to animals.

Scientists at the time, though, thought Ebola could be spread through the air, so there was a lot of concern.

“If you go back and look at the Reston days, everyone thought it was aerosolized,” Nancy Jaax said.

Jerry Jaax said the lab had been working with Ebola because it was considered a potential threat.

“Because we had capabilities and experience with those conditions, we had a team that responded to the outbreak and, you know, essentially contained the virus in that facility,” Jerry Jaax said. Because they didn’t know much about the strain of the virus at the time, “the whole exercise had a real edge to it for us.”

Jerry Jaax said his wife was the first to discover how the pathogen was spread from monkeys to humans.

The incident, chronicled in the 1994 book “The Hot Zone,” by Richard Preston, made Ebola infamous. He said before the book’s publication, perhaps only 1 out of every 1,000 people would have heard of Ebola.

“His book made Ebola sort of a sexy, emerging new virus,” Jerry Jaax said. “It got a lot of interest.”

Fortunately, they said, the current strain of Ebola virus isn’t very “catchy.”

“It’s very dangerous if you catch it,” Jerry Jaax said. “But it’s not very contagious.”

He said that if a person on a bus had Ebola, you couldn’t catch it just by sitting next to him.

“If he were bleeding out of his nostrils, and you took your hand and wiped his nostrils for him and you had a cut on your hand, you should be worried,” he said. “But if you rode next to him for 15 minutes, you probably wouldn’t catch it.”

Nancy Jaax said Americans shouldn’t be worried because the virus responds well to quarantine and the use of gloves and protective equipment.

She said the spread of the disease in Africa is largely due to cultural practices there. People care for their sick family members with no protective wear, for instance, and they don’t like going to doctors or hospitals.

“It’s spread to caregivers not wearing protective equipment,” she said. “And also it’s very easily spread, just the way they handle the bodies. There are factors in Africa that aren’t really an issue here. There’s also a tremendous distrust of Western medicine, and that’s not unusual.”

Nancy Jaax said many Ebola patients go to the hospital too late, and there’s nothing the hospital can do, so people get the idea that anyone who goes to the hospital doesn’t come back.

“I think it might get here,” she said. “That’s not a crazy thing to worry about. But patients are visibly ill before they’re infectious. Treatment is still very labor-intensive and requires a lot of clinical support. But we’re very lucky that the virus does respond well to quarantine.”

Jerry Jaax said the Ebola outbreak is not something to lose sleep over.

“It’s horrible what’s going on over there,” Jerry Jaax said. “They’re having a hard time getting their arms around it. There are some diseases out there, that if we were to have a really hot flu outbreak, something like that would be something you could get worried about. But… this is not something you should be concerned about.”

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