Did you know that the Ebola virus—the terrifying, infectious, and frequently fatal disease marked by severe bleeding—actually made its way onto U.S. soil in 1989?
The Hot Zone, National Geographic’s new six-part miniseries, (based on Richard Preston’s book of the same name) tells that story—and Dr. Nancy Jaax, a veterinary pathologist who worked at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID)—is at the forefront.
The show definitely keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, but the true story behind the show—especially that of Dr. Jaax herself—might be even more dramatic than the show. Here’s everything you need to know about the Reston, Virginia Ebola scare, and the real-life story of Dr. Jaax.
Hold on, what’s the Reston, Virginia Ebola scare?
It all started in November 1989 when monkeys from the Philippines—wild crab-eating macaques, specifically—arrived in the U.S. to become test subjects in Reston, Virginia labs, according to Fox News.
The monkeys began to die in their cages—autopsies later revealed they monkeys “bled out” from the inside, and were soon after diagnosed as having Ebola. In order to prevent people from getting sick, since Ebola was then primarily known for passing from human-to-human contact, 450 lab monkeys were euthanized as a precaution.
However, Ebola-Reston, the strain discovered in The Hot Zone scare, was later determined as the only known strain of Ebola that is not thought to be lethal in humans, per Fox News.
So what was Dr. Jaax’s role in the Ebola scare?
According to National Geographic, Dr. Jaax “played a key role in managing the situation” in Reston. Dr. Jaax said she was well-versed in Ebola and was able to quickly identify the virus, in an interview with National Geographic.
“I had worked a lot with [Ebola], and at the same time that these monkeys had gotten sick, the people working with them thought it was simian hemorrhagic fever, and they shipped us samples,” she said. “I went to the lab and asked to see slides from the monkeys that were dying, and it was very clear that they contained hallmarks consistent with Ebola virus.”
Before ending up in Reston, Dr. Jaax joined the Army after attending vet school in the Midwest.
Dr. Jaax’s husband Jerry joined the Army in order to work while she finished out her last year of vet school in Manhattan, Kansas. A year later, she joined the army as a veterinarian, and the couple traveled together, working with guard dogs in Seattle and later Germany. “We actually diagnosed the first coronavirus that was ever diagnosed in dogs, and we got it published,” she told National Geographic.
She was the only female veterinarian in a male-dominated field.
“She was the only woman in her field,” Margulies told Variety. “She had to constantly fight for her right to be in the room and this is what she’s trained for. It’s always a little disappointing as a woman to see that. I don’t think it would be the other way around.”
“It was the truth [that I working in a male dominated field], but it was never really an issue for me. I was very lucky to work for bosses who appreciated what I could do, and I was good at my job,” Dr. Jaax told National Geographic. “But I honestly felt like I always got a real fair shake. I never felt that anybody went, Well, she’s a woman, she can’t do this.”
During the Ebola scare, Dr. Jaax wasn’t always thinking in life-or-death terms.
When Julianna Margulies met with Dr. Jaax to research her character, she asked the pathologist, “Were you thinking of your life? Life and death? How were you rationalizing that in your head?”
“[Dr. Jaax] said, ‘Normally I would think about what I needed to buy in the grocery store. Like, what I needed to do after work and what I hadn’t gotten,’” Margulies told the The Associated Press. “So in a certain way it was also a godsend because it allowed her not to think about her own mortality.”
Dr. Jaax also said that she felt her HazMat Suit was her “safe space.” “She could get in the suit, no one was bothering her. She could just do her work and be at peace, and I understand that as someone who loves my work,” Margulies said. “A million things can be going on in my life. The second the cameras are rolling or I get to go on stage, I feel the same way.”
Dr. Jaax’s involvement in the Ebola scare still has its share of controversy.
In an interview with NPR, Thomas Geisbert—then, an intern at USAMRIID and now a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas—said that Dr. Jaax didn’t actually identify the Ebola virus. Instead, he says he and Peter Jahrling (played by Topher Grace on the show) did.
“Medically speaking Nancy is a veterinary pathologist not a virologist or microbiologist,” he said. “The whole sequence of events where she is trying to culture the virus is a joke. Pathologists don’t do that—virologists do.”
In fact, The Hot Zone itself is controversial in the way it shows the Ebola scare.
Despite National Geographic saying The Hot Zone was “inspired by” real events, the show has still been criticized for clinical inaccuracy—too much blood, unrealistic blisters per NPR—which is something Preston believes he could have handled differently in the book.
“I think that if I could do it all over again, there are certain sentences that I would tone down, particularly at the very beginning of the book with Charles Monet on the airplane, and I would be doing that just simply to make it more clinically accurate,” he told The Verge.
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