The doctors remember the clinical signs, because no one who has seen the effects of a Biosafety Level 4 hot agent on a human can forget them, but the effects pile up, one after the other, until they obliterate the person beneath them.
Preston describes one of the more terrifying symptoms of the Marburg virus and other filoviruses: the depersonalization of the victim. As the virus causes increasing brain damage, the host's individual personality essentially disappears. As a result, when death finally arrives, the victim is without awareness or memory. In essence, the virus does not just destroy the body of a person, it destroys the person's humanity.
A hot virus from the rain forest lives within a twenty-four hour plane flight from every city on earth. All of the earth's cities are connected by a web of airline routes. The web is a network. Once a virus hits the net, it can shoot anywhere in a day - Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, wherever planes fly.
This quotation refers to the double-edged sword of human achievement. While the technological advancement of air travel has changed human kind for the better, it has also brought us closer to the possibility of our own destruction. Within the existing flight network, a hot agent only needs to infect one person on a single airplane in order to cause a cascading outbreak anywhere on the planet. With that in mind, human survival seems to be protected by little more than chance.
Ebola, the great slate wiper, did things to people that you did not want to think about. The organism was too frightening to handle, even for those who were comfortable and adept in space suits. They did not care to do research on Ebola because they did not want Ebola to do research on them. They didn't know what kind of host the virus lived in - whether it was a fly or a bat or a tick or a spider or a scorpion or some kind of reptile, or an amphibian, such as a frog or a newt. Or maybe it lived in leopards or elephants. And they didn't know exactly how the virus spread, how it jumped from host to host.
Preston describes the fear that is directly caused by a lack of knowledge about the Ebola virus. Despite a life-long focus on the Ebola and Marburg viruses, even Gene Johnson has never been able to identify the source of the viruses. This mystery makes these viruses all the more dangerous and terrifying. Ultimately, a virus that is not understood can never be controlled.
Chance favors the prepared mind.
Shortly after his expedition to Kitum Cave, Gene Johnson refers to this quotation from Louis Pasteur, a 19th century chemist and microbiologist known for his work with preventative vaccinations for rabies and anthrax. Although Johnson's expedition is unsuccessful in that he does not identify the source of the Marburg virus, his experience in the cave ultimately prepares him for the outbreak at the Reston facility. In fact, his decision to keep the equipment used in the Mount Elgon expedition directly affects USAMRIID's ability to respond quickly to the crisis at the monkey house. Until a cure for the filoviruses can be found, prevention through preparedness is the only defense.
People performed all kinds of small rituals before they walked through that steel door. Some people crossed themselves. Others carried amulets or charms inside their space suits, even though it was technically against the rules to bring anything inside the suit except your body and the surgical scrubs. They hoped the amulets might help ward off the hot agent if there was a major break in the suit.
In this quotation, the author highlights the power of superstition in the face of fear. The scientists who work with hot agents are highly-trained individuals who understand that a break in their space suit will likely lead to exposure and death. Yet, at the same time, these well-educated men and women revert to ritual and superstition in order to find the courage to continue their work. While an amulet will not actually protect anyone from infection, such superstitions provide emotional safeguards that are necessary for the scientists to overcome their fears.
They were two human primates carrying another primate. One was the master of the earth, or at least believed himself to be, and the other was a nimble dweller in trees, a cousin of the master of the earth. Both species, the human and the monkey, were in the presence of another life form, which was older and more powerful than either of them, and was a dweller in blood.
In this quotation, the author highlights the egotism of the human race in believing that it is the most important and powerful species on the planet. The filoviruses exist far beyond humans, both in terms of age and ability to survive, and in terms of their destructive power. Ironically, only the few individuals who have actually encountered a filovirus can comprehend the extent of human vulnerability.
The more one contemplates the hot viruses, the less they look like parasites and the more they begin to look like predators.
With the author's vivid descriptions of the effects of the filoviruses, it is not difficult to imagine them as conscious predators. Many symptoms of the viruses are specifically designed to help the virus spread to other potential hosts, such as when Charles Monet bleeds out in the waiting room of Nairobi Hospital and Sister M.E. convulses and scatters infected blood throughout her room. Part of this characterization is due to Preston's writing style, as well as the dramatic requirements of a "scientific thriller." Yet, at the same time, it is undeniable that these deadly viruses display an unsettling malevolence in their single-minded drive to replicate.
In taking the veterinarian's oath, she had pledged herself to a code of honor that bound her to the care of animals but also bound her to the saving of human lives through medicine. At times in her work, those two ideals clashed.
In her work on the Ebola virus, Nancy Jaax struggles with a conflict between her duty as a scientist and her sense of morality as a veterinarian. In order to progress in her research, Nancy must work directly with monkeys that are suffering and will likely die, but this is in direct opposition to her duty to ease the suffering of animals. Ultimately, Nancy must accept that her priority is to save human lives, and the suffering of these animals may lead to a vaccine or even cure for Ebola.
A virus can be useful to a species by thinning it out.
This quotation describes the role that viruses and other diseases can play in maintaining evolutionary order. Although it is difficult to imagine a worldwide epidemic that could "thin out" the human species, it has already occurred numerous times in recorded history. During an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the 14th century, more than 25 million people died, or one third of the world's population. More recently, the influenza pandemic of 1918 caused the deaths of more than 40 million people. While it is not a pleasant thought, even a worldwide pandemic of Ebola Zaire would allow for some human survival. In such a scenario, those survivors would be living evidence of Darwin's "survival of the fittest."
Nature has interesting ways of balancing itself. The rain forest has its own defenses. The earth's immune system, so to speak, has recognized the presence of the human species and is starting to kick in. The earth is attempting to rid itself of an infection by the human parasite.
In this quotation, the author suggests that the earth is a victim of an infection in the same way that Charles Monet is a victim of Marburg and Nurse Mayinga is a victim of Ebola Zaire. In this scenario, human beings are the parasitic organisms with a constant drive to "replicate", while viruses such Ebola and AIDS are serving as the earth's protective antibodies. Preston points out that human beings are, in some ways, just as harmful to the planet as these emerging viruses are to human beings. Although The Hot Zone is twenty years old, Preston's argument is particularly relevant in this age of global warming and overpopulation.
The Hot Zone Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Hot Zone is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The author reflects on the ease in which a virus like Marburg or Ebola can spread. It is an unsettling feeling he leaves us with. He goes back to the Kitum Cave and the Monkey house to see nature reclaiming the places but this time he wonders if...