STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Scientists are reporting a victory against one of the deadliest microbes. Marburg virus kills up to 90 percent of the people it infects; it causes massive bleeding and organ damage. Now, a team of U.S. and Canadian researchers has saved the lives of a group of monkeys infected with the virus. This promises to change the course of future outbreaks of Marburg and its close cousin, Ebola virus. NPR's Richard Knox reports.
RICHARD KNOX reporting:
A year ago, Marburg virus was terrorizing the people of northern Angola. It killed 150 people. It was the largest Marburg outbreak ever. Across the Atlantic, scientists were beginning a series of bold experiments to see if they could defeat the virus with an experimental vaccine. Most of the time, vaccines are used before someone gets infected with a germ. But this time, researchers wanted to see if their vaccine could benefit monkeys after they were infected with Marburg virus.
Dr. THOMAS GEISBERG (Researcher, U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases): We did not, in our wildest dreams, think that we would protect all of the animals. It's something that, quite honestly, I didn't even think was achievable.
KNOX: Thomas Geisberg works with dangerous germs in the U.S. Army's maximum security lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland. It's known as a level-four lab, one of the few in the world. To do the vaccine experiment, Geisberg had to climb into a baby blue spacesuit tethered to an oxygen supply with a curly, yellow hose. We asked him last spring to take a recorder into the lab.
Dr. GEISBERG: Okay, I'm ready. I'm getting ready to head into the Level Four right now to check on the study. Today is day six. This is when we would normally expect, possibly, to see some changes in these animals.
KNOX: Earlier that week, Geisberg and his colleagues had injected Marburg virus into the monkeys. Within a half hour, some of them got injection of the experimental vaccine, others didn't. Then the researchers monitored them everyday.
Dr. GEISBERG: This is day seven after Marburg virus challenge on the treatment study. At this point, we have one of the animals that received its vaccine as a treatment--does appear to be not eating all of her food. But we just have to wait and see how this progresses.
KNOX: In the end, all the monkeys that didn't get the vaccine died. All the monkeys that got the vaccine survived. Scientists seldom hit that kind of homerun. Geisberg says the most he and his colleagues expected was that the vaccine would delay death, or that at least some of the monkeys wouldn't die. But the vaccinated monkeys suffered nothing more than a brief fever, despite getting enormous doses of Marburg.
Dr. GEISBERG: Our animal model is basically representing a worse case scenario, a boatload of virus.
KNOX: More virus, Geisberg says, than a family member or nurse would probably get from exposure to a sick Marburg patient. The results appear in the medical journal, The Lancet. The Fort Detrick group is working with a team at Canada's Public Health Agency in Winnipeg to see if a similar vaccine can protect monkeys infected with Ebola virus. Meanwhile, another U.S. group is trying the same thing with a different experimental vaccine. More work needs to be done before either vaccine could be used to save human lives from Marburg or Ebola. But Geisberg says there are a number of situations where it could be crucial.
Dr. GEISBERG: First and foremost, and certainly near and dear to my heart, is the issue of protecting lab workers from accidental exposures.
KNOX: That's not hypothetical. Not long ago, a researcher at Fort Detrick got accidentally exposed to one of these viruses, but avoided infection. But a Russian scientist died after a similar lab accident. There will soon be more research against these potential bio-terrorism agents that will provide more opportunities for these accidents to happen. And then there's the need to protect doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers in the middle of Marburg and Ebola outbreaks in central Africa.
Dr. Pierre Formenty of the World Health Organization says health workers are at great risk of dying from these viruses. It alarms the community to see doctors and nurses dying, so people stay away from the hospital, and that spreads the virus more widely.
Dr. PIERRE FORMENTY (World Health Organization): If we are able to protect healthcare workers in hospital settings, it will be a great change for us because it will give us more trust from the population.
KNOX: Once safety questions are answered, researchers hope vaccines will be used within stricken communities to stop these terrifying epidemics.
Richard Knox, NPR News.