Nancy Jaax is now standing with Tony Johnson in the mazelike, oppressive hot zone, which is completely sealed from all contact with outside air. The two put on boots and enter the monkey room, which includes both infected and healthy specimens. While the healthy (control) monkeys become agitated when Nancy and Tony enter their area, the Ebola monkeys remain quiet and passive.
Nancy and Tony are now within the “hot zone,” the area potentially infected by deadly “hot viruses,” from which the book takes its name. Preston uses visual language to illustrate how different the hot zone is from the outside world, emphasizing the bravery of those who choose to enter it.
The monkeys, Preston relates, have been injected with a specific type of Ebola Zaire known as the Mayinga strain, because it was found within the blood of a nurse named Mayinga N., who died of the virus in October 1976. After caring for a Roman Catholic nurse who fell ill with Ebola in Zaire, Mayinga died, and a sample of her blood ended up in a highly protected “superfreezer” at USAMRIID.
This detail about Mayinga brings back the theme of globalization. Although Level 4 of USAMRIID feels isolated from the rest of the world, Preston reminds us that it is located in Maryland, and still contains blood from a nurse from Zaire (which is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Gene Johnson, we learn, has been injecting Mayinga’s blood into the monkeys, and then attempting to treat them with various drugs when they fall ill with her strain of Ebola. So far, however, none of his treatments have been effective.
Gene Johnson has been taking advantage of the similarities between humans and primates in order to conduct his experiments, essentially sacrificing the monkeys in an effort to learn more about the virus.
Nancy Jaax and Tony Johnson reach the cages of the monkeys who have died during the night. Both animals have bloody noses and bright red eyes, and their faces look like masks, due to both soft tissue and brain damage. Nancy feels upset by the dead and distorted monkeys, but reminds herself that they have died for the greater good. Johnson watches Nancy as she carefully removes the monkey from its cage. This is a dangerous operation because, if the monkey is unconscious rather than dead, Nancy could easily sustain a bite from its powerful jaws, and such an event would almost definitely lead to her infection and death.
Nancy’s uneasy feelings about the experiment allow Preston to bring up another important issue: that monkeys are being killed off in order to protect the human populace (an act that will occur with increasing regularity as the narrative continues). Preston again emphasizes the dangers that human researchers face when working with Ebola, despite the huge amount of precautionary measures that they take.
Nancy inspects the monkey, noting nervously that it still has its sharp canine fangs (which are usually filed down in captive monkeys). She pinches its toe to make sure that it is really dead, and then follows Johnson’s orders to take the monkey out of the cage, facing it away from her just in case it wakes up and bites her. As the two maneuver the monkey into a biohazard container, Preston notes the kinship between human “master[s] of the earth” and monkeys. He contrasts both primates with Ebola, an “older and more powerful” life form that can hide within blood.
Preston further complicates the issue of killing monkeys by reminding us how closely related we are to the primates that Gene, Tony, and Nancy are using for experiments. He places humans in the same category as monkeys, in fact, in order to contrast both of us with Ebola, a life form that is both mysterious and ancient—and powerful enough to kill the human “masters of the earth.”
Tony Johnson and Nancy lay out the monkey on an autopsy table. They pull on yet another pair of latex gloves, meaning that they now have three layers of gloves: an inner lining, a spacesuit glove, and the latex glove that they’ve just put on. After checking on their surgical instruments (all of which are blunt), the two open the monkey’s chest cavity, which is described as a “lake of blood,” all of which is highly infectious. Nancy reminds herself to keep her hands slow and steady. The two finish the procedure, and Nancy rinses her hands in a substance called EnviroChem, which kills viruses.
The various linings of gloves that Preston describes are practical, but also highly symbolic, emblemizing the many layers that human scientists try to keep between themselves and Ebola at all times. These precautions are understandable, considering the vast amount of infected blood that Tony and Nancy are exposed to just by dissecting one dead monkey.
Preston describes the anatomy of a virus, “a small capsule made of membranes and proteins” that contains either DNA or RNA, which allows the virus to copy itself. He explains that some biologists call viruses “life forms,” but that whether or not they are actually alive is ambiguous. Viruses can only become active, he asserts, when they have latched onto other cells, hijacking their reproduction mechanisms in order to make more viruses. Eventually a cell may explode because it has so many viruses within it, or, as is the case with HIV, the viruses may slowly dribble out of the cell’s wall. Viruses exhaust cells until they die, and when enough cells have been destroyed, the host organism itself will die. “It is not in the best interest of a virus,” Preston explains, to kill its host, because it will then either need to find a new host or die itself. Ebola contains a strand of RNA, the most ancient and primitive way for an organism to replicate itself. This suggests that Ebola is a truly “primordial” organism, “perhaps nearly as old as the earth itself.” Preston compares viruses to “molecular sharks,” whose only purpose is to replicate. He then emphasizes how tiny viruses are.
Although this description of viruses may seem like a digression, it is in fact a clear and powerful explanation for why Nancy and Tony must take all the precautions that they do when dealing with such a powerful organism. Preston explains that at the most basic level, viruses only have one fundamental drive: to multiply at all costs. The fact that they are not quite organisms but not quite inanimate also illustrates their mysterious and implacable nature. Despite their simplicity, they are perfectly evolved machines, unburdened by anything but the constant act of multiplying. Ebola’s age, meanwhile, further emphasizes its power. It has survived for (perhaps) as long as the earth has existed—compared to this kind of virus, the human race is in its infancy.
Nancy thinks about how much she hates blood, because of the dangerous viruses it can contain. She also monitors Tony Johnson’s suit to make sure that it has no life-threatening holes or tears. Johnson, meawhile, watches Nancy to see if she makes any clumsy or jerky movements. The two work together to crack the monkey’s skull, a difficult task because they cannot use any sharp implements. As they preserve the brain, eyes, and spinal cord, Johnson notices a large rip on Nancy’s outermost right glove. She takes it off, getting blood on her spacesuit in the process. As she rinses her suit off with disinfectant, Nancy realizes that she feels something wet against her bare skin; she inspects her space suit glove, and sees that there is a crack near the wrist, meaning that there may be Ebola blood within it, near her wounded hand. She points the breach out to Johnson and sees fear in his eyes. He orders her to leave Level 4 immediately, and Nancy does so, growing increasingly frantic.
Preston strikes a foreboding note by emphasizing just how much Nancy hates blood (because of the viruses that it can contain within it), and this sense of dread increases when Nancy and Tony discover the tear in her glove. This is a powerful and terrifying moment, symbolizing just how fragile humans really are, no matter how many precautions they take. The cut on Nancy’s hand (which she got while cooking dinner) is now potentially deadly, emphasizing how even the smallest of human errors can have massive consequences. Preston draws out this sequence of events, forcing readers to feel the same dread that Nancy does as she wonders whether or not she has been infected.
Nancy allows herself to be decontaminated for seven minutes in the air lock, and considers what will happen if she has in fact been exposed to Ebola blood: if this is the case, she will be forced into a sterile government hospital called the Slammer. If she dies, her body will then be destroyed in a morgue nicknamed the Submarine. She imagines what will happen to her family without her.
The Slammer and the Submarine illustrate another kind of terrible fate that awaits someone exposed to Ebola in the Institute—even if they never actually fall ill. This moment also gives the descriptions of Nancy’s family life new meaning. Were she to die of Ebola, the suburban existence that Preston previously described would be completely destroyed.
When the decon shower is finished, Nancy takes off the spacesuit, and realizes with horror that the glove has indeed leaked, meaning that there is Ebola blood all over her innermost glove. Going to a surgical sink, she rinses the blood off the glove and strips it off. Seeing blood on her bare hand, she is horrified—until she realizes that it is her own blood, seeping out from under her Band-Aid. She next fills her innermost glove with water to make sure there are no holes (through which virus particles could have slipped). The glove appears to be airtight, meaning that she has not in fact been exposed. Upon realizing that she is safe, Nancy collapses to the floor. The accident report on the subject confirms what Nancy believes: she has not been exposed. But she has come very close to catching Ebola—from a monkey, who caught it from a nurse, who caught it from a nun in Zaire.
The fact that the exposure is actually a near miss—Nancy’s final glove protected her from the blood after all—only makes clearer the element of luck and chance that factors into dealing with hot viruses. Preston ends by reminding us that Nancy almost caught Ebola from a long-dead nurse in Zaire, once again pointing to globalization as both a constructive and destructive force. He lists the sequence of infection leading up to Nancy, but before the Ebola-infected nun, the source of the virus is a mystery.
Later that night, Nancy calls Jerry in Texas to tell him about her close shave. He is appalled, and reminds her that he didn’t want her working with Ebola in the first place. Nancy, however, remains calm and tells Jerry that everything is going to be fine.
Despite her terrifying experience, Nancy remains calm in the face of a crisis. This quality will serve her well as the narrative progresses.
Preston relates that Gene Johnson’s Ebola experiments were unsuccessful because he was never able to find drugs that had any effect on the virus. In fact, the experiment uncovered something incredibly disturbing: healthy monkeys kept in the Ebola room as controls eventually became sick and died as well, although they had no direct contact with the sick monkeys. Preston compares Ebola to AIDS, which cannot spread through the air, as this strain of Ebola appears to have done. Years later, Nancy tells the story to Preston, explaining that somehow, Ebola managed to make itself airborne.
Despite the many dead monkeys and the huge risk that researchers such as Nancy undertook, Gene’s experiment yields only negative and terrifying results, calling into question whether or not Ebola can spread through the air. The fact that so much effort has gone in, yet no cure has been found, illustrates the difficulty of combating this deadly, mysterious virus.