Preston introduces readers to a trainee at USAMRIID called Thomas Geisbert, who operates the Institute’s electron microscope, which is used to take images of small organisms and objects like viruses. Geisbert thinks of classifying viruses as like “sorting butterflies or collecting flowers.” He even feels “at peace” when in a spacesuit, and enjoys being in the hot zone by himself. He’s also a hunter, and especially enjoys deer season. Geisbert has trained himself to identify various viruses on sight, and has spent a great deal of time looking at the Marburg taken from Peter Cardinal.
Thomas Geisbert will be another important and sympathetic figure in the book. For now, he thinks of viruses as almost a beautiful part of nature, and feels totally safe dealing with them when he is a spacesuit. This confidence leads to hubris, however, as we will see.
Having heard about the sick monkeys in Reston, Geisbert decides to take photographs of the samples in order to try to identify simian-fever-virus particles. He decides to first examine them under a normal light microscope (far less powerful than an electron microscope), and does so along with Joan Rhoderick, the day after Dan Dalgard euthanizes his monkeys. Rhoderick notices something odd, as does Geisbert: the cells in the flask look broken and dead, and are specked with tiny granules that appear to be spilling out of them. The two decide to show the cells to Peter Jahrling. Since he’s only in Level 3, Geisbert removes his scrub suit and takes a shower before going to find Jahrling. When they return, they dress like surgeons once again and go to examine the sample.
At last, the scientists at USAMRIID begin to understand that they are dealing with something unusual, but they still remain over-confident and so don’t take many precautions. This is totally understandable, of course, and seems like an error only in light of what we as readers already know—which makes its reality all the more terrifying.
When he sees the sample, Jahrling asserts that the cells must have been contaminated in some way—an annoying but common occurrence. Believing the contaminant to be pseudonomonas—a common bacteria that can easily destroy cell cultures—Jahrling waves his hand over the flask in order to waft its scent and smell it. He encourages Geisbert to do the same, explaining that pseudonomonas “smells like Welch’s grape juice.” This culture, however, has no scent, and so Jahrling instructs Geisbert to examine the sample under the electron microscope.
This is a moment of dramatic and alarming human error—Peter Jahrling and Thomas Geisbert decide to sniff a flask that is (unbeknownst to them) actually filled with Ebola virus. This episode illustrates that even conscientious medical professionals who know how to protect themselves can often fall into the trap of complacency, as their curiosity edges close to something like hubris.
Geisbert places some of the fluid from the culture into a centrifuge in order to separate out the different kinds of cells, and then sets off on his hunting trip. Preston mentions that when a filovirus takes residence in a human host, its incubation period lasts from three to eighteen days. “Then comes the headache.”
Preston ends the chapter on an ominous note by citing how many days it may be before Geisbert and Jahrling begin to experience symptoms—if they are, in fact, infected by the virus.