National Geographic : 2015 Jul
58 national geographic • July 2015 After a few bats Leendertz stepped back from the processing work and allowed an Ivor- ian graduate student, Leonce Kouadio, tall, mild mannered, and thin as a candle, to take his place. This was a training mission as well as a scientific investigation, after all, and Leen- dertz wanted to give his protégés a richness of experience. Kouadio had good skills already, and as he got into rhythm, sharing these exact- ing tasks in the warm African night, I noticed the T-shirt beneath his medical gown, which carried some sort of resort logo and said, It’s the perfect holiday. For him, maybe, but not for everybody. A Strange Host Back in the United States, I spoke with more experts during a stop at the CDC in Atlanta and by telephone. When I asked why it’s important to identify the reservoir host of Ebola virus, they all agreed: because that information is essential to preventing future outbreaks. On other points they diverged. The most unexpected comment came from Jens Kuhn, a brainy young virologist now at the National Institutes of Health and, by way of his tome Filoviruses, arguably the pre- eminent historian of Ebola. I’ve known Kuhn as a candid source but also a lively and gener- ous friend since we met at a conference hosted by Eric Leroy. Why do you think that after 39 years, I asked him, the reservoir of Ebola is still unidentified? “It’s a strange host.” “A strange host,” I repeated, not sure I’d heard right. “That’s what I think.” His logic was complex, but he sketched it concisely. First, outbreaks of Ebola virus dis- ease have been relatively infrequent—only about two dozen in nearly 40 years. Rare oc- currences. Almost every one was traceable to a single human case, infected from the wild, fol- lowed by human-to-human transmission. This The search for Ebola’s hiding place led Fabian Leendertz to gather blood and tissue from an Angolan free-tailed bat (above). Leendertz (right, with flashlight) and local men examine a roosting site of the same small bat, above the ceiling of a house in an Ivory Coast village.