National Geographic : 2015 Jul
Ebola 53 evidence of Ebola. Photographer Pete Muller and I went with him. Leendertz and his team, including a gradu- ate student named Ariane Düx, focused on two villages outside the city of Bouaké, a trade hub near the country’s center. After shopping for trap materials in Bouaké’s market, scouting the villages for bat-filled houses, and paying respects to village elders, the team assembled their apparatus late one afternoon, in time for the fly out at dusk. The traps were cone-shaped structures, jerry-built of long boards and trans- lucent plastic sheeting, designed to capture bats as they emerged from a roof hole and funnel them down into a plastic tub. Amazingly, the system worked. At 6:25 p.m. on the first evening one trap came alive like a popcorn popper, as dozens of small gray bodies slid down the sheet- ing and thumped into the tub. For the next phase Leendertz and Düx suited up in medical gloves, respirator masks, gowns, and visors. With a naked lightbulb hanging above their makeshift lab table, they began pro- cessing bats: weighing and measuring each an- imal, noting sex and approximate age, injecting an electronic chip the size of a caraway seed for later identification, and most important, draw- ing blood from a vein in the animal’s tiny arm. One well-aimed poke with a delicate needle, and a blood drop would appear, to be gathered with a fine pipette. Düx and Leendertz worked together at close range, trustingly sharing tasks, and it oc- curred to me that if she poked twice at the vein and missed the second time, jabbing Leendertz’s finger instead, he could have an Ebola-related needle-stick injury. But she didn’t miss. The blood went into small vials, for freezing immediately in a liquid-nitrogen tank and even- tual screening back in Berlin. A small fraction of all the captured bats would be killed and dis- sected, so that snippets of their internal organs, especially liver and spleen, where viruses often concentrate, could be added to the trove of fro- zen samples. The other bats would be released. If a blood sample from one dissected individ- ual later tested positive for antibodies or viral fragments, its organs would then be used in an attempt (more dangerous and more expensive, done only in a BSL-4 laboratory) to isolate live Ebola virus.