Preston visits Gene Johnson near Fort Detrick. The scientist recounts his discovery that Peter Cardinal and Charles Monet had both been at Kitum Cave. Afterwards, Johnson flew out to Kenya and talked with David Silverstein. The two retraced Peter’s trail through Kenya, and interviewed his grieving parents. The biggest mystery was why Peter had contracted Marburg, but his sister had not. His parents mentioned, however, that Peter was an aspiring geologist, and that he had collected crystals from Kitum Cave. It seemed possible that an Ebola-contaminate crystal had perhaps cut Peter’s finger. Next, Johnson and Silverstein traveled to Kitum Cave itself, despite fears that Marburg could be transmitted through the air.
After the discovery that Kitum Cave likely contains the Marburg virus’s host, Gene Johnson begins his quest to discover that host within the cave. This obsession even brings him to Kitum Cave itself, despite the personal risk. This passage then once again emphasizes Gene’s bravery and selflessness, while also emphasizing just how difficult it is to figure out exactly how someone contracts a hot virus in the first place, or where they reside in the wild.
The year before Peter Cardinal’s death, in 1986, Gene Johnson had infected monkeys through their lungs with Marburg and Ebola, meaning that if the particles were inhaled, they could indeed cause an infection. Therefore to investigate the cave, Johnson required his team to wear military gas masks. To cover their heads, they comically made do with flowered pillowcases. After a short visit to Kitum Cave, Johnson got the Army to fund a major research expedition, and in 1988 he traveled to Nairobi with a full team of thirty-five scientists and staff, many of whom were Kenyans. Beforehand, the team discussed what to do if one of them died of Marburg. Along with Johnson came Dr. Peter Tukei. First, the team fills cages with guinea pigs and three different kinds of monkeys. Then they put these animals in the cave. If one of the animals came down with Marburg, then the scientists would know that the virus indeed lived in the cave, and could perhaps detect how the animal had contracted it.
This expedition is a major effort on the part of the U.S. and Kenya, proof of how seriously both governments take the threat of Ebola. This is an instance in which globalization is a positive force, allowing doctors to team up despite national boundaries and geographical distance in order to combine knowledge and combat a deadly virus. Also significant here is the bravery that these researchers display in their decision to join the expedition. Considering how little is known about the virus, they are putting their lives on the line simply by being near Kitum Cave, let alone venturing inside of it.
The Kitum Cave expedition moves into an old English hunting lodge from the 1920s, and gradually moves the animals up the mountain. They assume that the cave is a Level 4 hot zone, and create a decontamination area outside of it. To go into the cave, they wear orange spacesuits called Racals. These suits are lighter than the Chemturion suits used at USAMRIID, and are also completely portable and disposable. Wearing the suits, they create a trail leading into Kitum Cave, and place the animals inside. They collect insects in order to test them for Marburg as well. In addition to the test animals and the insects, naturalists on the expedition also trap hundreds of species of birds, rodents, and bats, dissecting them and taking samples of blood and tissue. They also take blood from the Elgon Masai, the local tribe, as well as their cattle. Although no one in the nearby villages has been infected, they do tell stories of an Ebola-like virus.
That a highly involved expedition should turn up no evidence whatsoever of Marburg’s host is a testament to the mystery surrounding this kind of virus. Although the researchers are incredibly thorough in their approach—as evidenced by Preston’s descriptions of their processes—they are incapable of cracking the secrets of Kitum Cave. This episode makes the cave’s status as a symbol of the mystery and power of nature even more apparent. The cave contains secrets within it, and even the diligent, courageous colleagues of Gene Johnson are unable to access those secrets.
After weeks of this, however, none of the monkeys becomes ill. In fact, the expedition finds not a hint of Marburg virus within the cave—a terrible disappointment for Gene Johnson. Despite the apparent waste of the expedition, however, Preston suggests that Johnson’s knowledge and experience may still be useful in the future. He stores his gear in USAMRIID, ready at all times to combat an Ebola threat.
Gene Johnson, like many others in the book, believes that we must be constantly ready for an Ebola outbreak. In an instance of foreshadowing, Preston implies that he is correct.
The Army sends Nancy and Jerry Jaax to the Institute for Chemical Defense near Aberdeen, MD. Nancy studies the effects of nerve tanks on rats, a safer but less interesting task than Ebola research. Both she and Jerry are promoted to lieutenant colonel, and their daughter Jaime becomes a young gymnast, while Jaison grows tall and quiet, like his father. Time passes, and Colonel Tony Johnson is appointed head of pathology at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Remembering Nancy’s competence, he recommends that she take his place as chief of pathology at USAMRIID, and Nancy begins to work in a spacesuit once more. Jerry Jaax, meanwhile, becomes the head of USAMRIID’s veterinary division. The family moves back to Thurmont in the summer of 1989.
In returning to the seemingly mundane details of the Jaax’s suburban life, Preston is in fact ensuring that the reader always understands exactly what is at stake in the fight against Ebola. Although a far-off jungle cave may seem exotic, what is also at stake is the peaceful, modern life that we (as Westerners like the Jaaxes) have come to take for granted. We assume that we have control over our health and our lives, when in reality a microscopic organism from thousands of miles away could easily turn everything upside down.