The Vital Role of Gossip in Scientific Research
As in many infections, inter-species transfer of a virus, like monkey-man-monkey-man, is more likely when the two hosts are under stress; and in such transfers the virus is likely to become progressively more virulent. ( The opposite is true when a virus re-infects the same host many many times. That is, in general, how the live virus for polio was developed.)
What follows is a factual report of an iatrogenic (man made) outbreak of tanapox, a viral infection normally confined to certain monkeys. In this case it bounced back and forth among the research animals and their handlers; it ultimately spread to the surrounding community. I was the physician responsible for treatment of infected workers, witnessing the increased virulence and infectiousness of the virus. Other outbreaks have occurred, but never have they spread beyond the confines of the research workers involved. There has been monkey to man spread but never secondary spread of the same infection, monkey to human, and then human to human.
To my knowledge the episode has never been reported; the administrative defenses of the university and the research institution immediately isolated, and successfully walled off and prevented spread of information, and fear- and have avoided formal publication of the details- during more than 40 years.
Most significantly, however, that is not to say that the outbreak is unknown to the scientific community. Though unpublished and religiously undocumented, it has had a significant effect, both locally and far afield among the world’s primate centers. Afterward, no one, anywhere, was willing to take a chance of it happening again. Therefore this post is not an exposé. It merely describes a particular outbreak in terms of the people involved and their interaction with one another in a great and powerful research institution.
Yaba-like disease, YLD, (or Tanapox, as described in monkey exposed children in Kenya on the Tana River), is an oncogenic (tumor forming) infection of certain old world monkeys, producing intra-dermal (skin confined) tumors. When seen in humans it causes a tender, indolent nodule, which may ulcerate before gradually clearing over several weeks without systemic effects like fever, and without scarring. (Orf is a similar infection seen among sheep handlers.)
At the Primate Center and outbreak of YLD had been taking place over several years among approximately 340 monkeys. Because the animals required handling, when I saw caretakers with infections of their hands or forearms, I required they be off work until healed, to avoid re- infecting other animals. But the Director was a doctor as well, and vetoed my decision. He was also a world reknowned primate researcher, commanding many millions of dollars, while I was just a salaried university employee. Likewise the Campus Office of Environmental Health and Safety tried to enforce the off-work status of handlers, but to no effect. We understood that the university, like congress, can absolve itself of selected laws and regulations, in the name of the greater good. Unlike congress, research institutions appear to be still subject to the Laws of Money which generally override all other considerations.
The animal handlers continued to work in contact with active exposed lesions, setting up monkey to man to monkey to man transfers of YLD. Inadvertently, the Director had set up a lovely, though unauthorized and illegal, experiment of inter-species transfer of the viral infection.
As the outbreak continued over the following year, lesions became larger, and more painful, with longer periods of indolence. Soon, multiple lesions were seen. Then handlers developed generalized symptoms of lethargy, fever, malaise, and occasionally a generalized itching rash. I had become professionally invested in the process and provided the Primate Center virologist with serial blood samples, as well as biopsies of lesions. Even though it is likely that some cases were not reported at first, we had blood samples on 15 cases.
The first and only case of YLD off campus occurred in the wife of an animal technician. She developed a single lesion on her cheek. Within two days the director was gone- taking his big money grants, requiring much animal handling , with him. The YLD among technicians ceased abruptly. The technician’s wife recovered without incident. The episode was never published, but is sometimes referred to obliquely. While it’s out of date now, within months a seven point procedure was proposed to avoid such events. In the intervening years the world has become less dependent on Primate Research and less aggressive in handling animals. That seems to me to suggest one thing:
Gossip , and the fear publicity can generate, is a vital but undocumented aspect of clinical research.
Jesek, Z et al Human Tanapox in Zaire Bull Wld Hlth Org 73 1027-35, 1985
España C. Medical Primatology, 1970. Proc 2nd Conf. exp Med Surg Primates
Downie, W.A. and España C. A. Comparative Study of Tanapox and Yaba Viruses. J. gen Virol. 1973, 19 27-29
Tauraso, Nocholas, Review of recent epizootics in nonhuman primate colonies and their relation to man. Lab Animal Science Vol 23, no w 201-210 1973
España Carlos, Review of Some Outbreaks of Viral Disease in Captive Nonhuman Primates Lab Animal Science, Vol 21, No. 6, 1023 -1030
This entry was posted in Essays on América, Flash creative nonfiction, Medical essays, philosophical essays and tagged Gossip in scientific research, inter-species transfer of viral infections., Primate centers, primate research, Tana Pox, Yaba Like Disease, YLD, Zoonoses.