In the Congo rainforest, the doctor who discovered Ebola warns of deadly viruses yet to come
Watch CNN’s “The Coming Contagion” on CNN International on Thursday, December 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET and 10:30 p.m. ET, on Friday, December 25 at 2:30 a.m. ET and on Sunday, December 27 at 9:30 a.m. ET.
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Showing early symptoms of hemorrhagic fever, the patient sits quietly on her bed, wrangling two toddlers desperate to flee the cell-like hospital room in Ingende, a remote town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
They are waiting for the results of a test for Ebola.
There is a vaccine and a treatment for Ebola, which have brought down the rate at which it kills.
But the question at the back of everyone’s mind is: What if this woman doesn’t have Ebola? What if, instead, she is patient zero of “Disease X,” the first known infection of a new pathogen that could sweep the world as fast as Covid-19, but one that has Ebola’s 50% to 90% fatality rate?
This isn’t the stuff of science fiction. It’s a scientific fear, based on scientific facts.
“We’ve all got to be frightened,” the patient’s physician, Dr. Dadin Bonkole, said. “Ebola was unknown. Covid was unknown. We have to be afraid of new diseases.”
Threat to humanity
Humanity faces an unknown number of new and potentially fatal viruses emerging from Africa’s tropical rainforests, according to Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, who helped discover the Ebola virus in 1976 and has been on the frontline of the hunt for new pathogens ever since.
“We are now in a world where new pathogens will come out,” he told CNN. “And that’s what constitutes a threat for humanity.”
As a young researcher, Muyembe took the first blood samples from the victims of a mysterious disease that caused hemorrhages and killed about 88% of patients and 80% of the staff who were working at the Yambuku Mission Hospital when the disease was first discovered.
The vials of blood were sent to Belgium and the US, where scientists found a worm-shaped virus. They called it “Ebola,” after the river close to the outbreak in the country that was then known as Zaire.
The identification of Ebola relied on a chain that connected the most remote parts of Africa’s rainforests to high-tech laboratories in the West.
Now, the West must rely on African scientists in the Congo and elsewhere to act as the sentinels to warn against future diseases.
In Ingende, the fears of encountering a new, deadly, virus remained very real even after the recovery of the patient showing symptoms that looked like Ebola. Her samples were tested on site and sent on to the Congo’s National Institute of Biomedical Research (INRB) in Kinshasa, where they were further tested for other diseases with similar symptoms. All came back negative, the illness that affected her remains a mystery.
Yellow fever, various forms of influenza, rabies, brucellosis and Lyme disease are among those that pass from animals to humans, often via a vector such as a rodent or an insect.
They’ve caused epidemics and pandemics before.
HIV emerged from a type of chimpanzee and mutated into a world-wide modern plague. SARS, MERS and the Covid-19 virus known as SARS-CoV-2 are all coronaviruses that jumped to humans from unknown “reservoirs” — the term virologists use for virus’ natural hosts — in the animal kingdom. Covid-19 is thought to have originated in China, possibly in bats.
Does Muyembe think future pandemics could be worse than Covid-19, more apocalyptic? “Yes, yes, I think so,” he said.
New viruses on the rise
Since the first animal-to-human infection, yellow fever, was identified in 1901, scientists have found at least another 200 viruses known to cause disease in humans. According to research by Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, new species of viruses are being discovered at a rate of three to four a year. The majority of them originate from animals.
Experts say the rising number of emerging viruses is largely the result of ecological destruction and wildlife trade.
As their natural habitats disappear, animals like rats, bats, and insects survive where larger animals get wiped out. They’re able to live alongside human beings and are frequently suspected of being the vectors that can carry new diseases to humans.
In the first 14 years of the 21st century, an area larger than the size of Bangladesh was felled in the Congo River basin rainforest.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Writing in the journal Science, the group said spending $9.6 billion a year on global forest protection schemes could lead to a 40% reduction in global deforestation in areas at the highest risk of virus spillover. This could include incentivizing the people living in and making their living from the forests, and banning widespread logging and the commercialization of the wildlife trade.
A similar program in Brazil led to a 70% decline in deforestation between 2005 and 2012, the scientists said.
The early warning system
Muyembe now runs the INRB in Kinshasa.
While some scientists still sit in the cramped offices in the old INRB compound where Muyembe first worked on Ebola, brand-new laboratories opened in February. The INRB is supported by Japan, the US, the World Health Organization, the EU and other international donors including NGOs, foundations and academic institutions
With Biosafety Level 3 labs, genome sequencing capability and world-class equipment, these facilities are not an act of charitable aid — they’re a strategic investment
Backed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, these INRB labs are the world’s early warning system for new outbreaks of known diseases like Ebola, and — perhaps more importantly — for those illnesses we have yet to discover.
“If a pathogen emerged from Africa it will take time to spread all over the world,” Muyembe said. “So, if this virus is detected early — like in my institution here — there will be opportunity for Europe [and the rest of the world] to develop new strategies to fight these new pathogens.”
Muyembe has reconnaissance units on the frontline of the war against new pathogens. Doctors, virologists and researchers are working deep in the DRC’s interior, seeking out known and unknown viruses before they can cause new pandemics.
Simon Pierre Ndimbo and Guy Midingi are ecologists and virus hunters in the DRC’s northwestern Équateur Province, where Ingende is located. They’re the tip of the spear in tracking and tracing signs of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs).
On a recent expedition the pair collected 84 bats, painstakingly picking them from their nets and tying the squealing, nipping animals up into bags.
“You have to be careful — if not, they bite,” explained Midingi, his hands double-gloved for protection.
Back at the lab in Mbandaka the bats are swabbed, and blood samples are taken to be tested for Ebola before being sent to the INRB for further tests. The bats are then released.
Dozens of new coronaviruses have been found in bats over recent years. No one knows just how dangerous they may be to humans.
Exactly how Ebola first infected humans remains a mystery, but scientists believe zoonotic illnesses like Ebola and Covid-19 make the leap when wild animals are butchered.
In Kinshasa, a market trader brandishes the smoked carcass of a colobus monkey, its teeth exposed in a gruesome, petrified grin — he’s selling the small primates for $22, though the price, he says, is “negotiable.”
Colobus monkeys have been hunted to extinction in some parts of the DRC, but the trader says he could export scores of them to Europe by plane.
“I have to be honest, it’s forbidden to send the monkeys,” he explains. “We have to cut their heads and arms off and pack them among the other meats.”
He says he gets deliveries every week, often from Ingende, around 400 miles upriver — the same village where doctors live in fear of a new pandemic emerging.
Adams Cassinga, CEO of Conserv Congo and a wildlife crime investigator, said investigations have shown that “in Kinshasa alone, we have between five and 15 tons of bushmeat exported … some goes to the Americas … but the biggest part goes to Europe. Mainly to Brussels, Paris and London.”
The live animals in the so-called “wet” market pose a bigger threat.
Here young crocodiles — snouts wired shut and legs tied up — writhe on top of one another. Traders offer barrels of giant land snails, tortoises and freshwater turtles. Elsewhere there are black markets from live chimpanzees, and more exotic animals, some traded into private collections, others heading for the pot.
“Disease X” may be ticking away inside any one of these animals, brought to the metropolis by poor people serving the tastes of the rich for exotic meals and pets.
“Bushmeat here, in urban areas, unlike the popular misconception, it is not for the poor, it is for the rich and privileged, so you’ve got high-ranking officials who believe in superstition that if you consume a certain type of bushmeat, it will give you strength,” Cassinga said. “You also have people who consume it as a symbol of status. But also in the last 10 to 20 years we have experienced an influx of expatriates, mainly from Southeast Asia, and who demand to eat certain types of meat such as turtles, snakes, primates.”
The commercialization of the bushmeat trade is a potential route for infection. It’s also a symptom of the devastation of the Congo tropical rainforest, the world’s second largest after the Amazon.
Yet the slash and burn techniques used by the locals increase human exposure to this once-virgin territory and its wild animals, a major risk factor for disease.
“If you go in the forest … you will change the ecology; and insects and rats will leave this place and come to the villages … so this is the transmission of the virus, of the new pathogens,” Muyembe said.
Back in Ingende Hospital, the doctors are wearing as much protective gear as can be found: Goggles, yellow biohazard overalls, double gloves taped shut, hoods over their heads and shoulders, galoshes over their shoes, and complex facemasks.
They are still worried that the female patient may be showing symptoms of an Ebola-like illness that is not, in fact, Ebola. It may be a new virus, it may also be one of the many diseases that afflict people here that are already known to science — but none of the tests done here have explained her high fever and diarrhea.
“We get cases which look very much like Ebola, but then when we do the tests, they are negative,” said the head of medical services in Ingende, Dr. Christian Bompalanga.
“We have to carry out additional examinations in order to see what is really going on … at the moment there are a couple of suspected cases over there,” he added, pointing to the isolation ward where the young woman and her kids are being treated. And weeks later there remains no clear diagnosis for her illness.
Once a new virus begins circulating among humans, the consequences of a brief encounter at the edge of a forest or at a wet market could be devastating. Covid-19 has shown that. Ebola has proved it. And in most of the scientific publications there is an assumption that there will be more contagions coming as humans continue to destroy wilderness habitats. It’s not an “IF” it’s a “WHEN”.
The solution is clear. Protect the forests to protect humanity — because Mother Nature has deadly weapons in her armory.
CNN’s Ingrid Formanek and Ivana Kottasová contributed to this report. Thanks to Dr. Meris Matondo and Dr. Richard Ekila from INRB, the Congo’s National Institute of Biomedical Research, for their guidance during the reporting of this story.
Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump
“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.
The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.
“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”
But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.
On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.
Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.
A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.
The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.
Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.
Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.
Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.
A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.
But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.
The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.
Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.
A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.
Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.
The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.
Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.
Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout
5 min read
Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.
It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.
The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.
Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.
“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.
In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.
“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.
“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”
Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.
He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same.
“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”
Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.
The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.
But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.
Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.
Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.
Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”
The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”
The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.
“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided.
“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”
Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.
“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”
The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.
He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”
But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.
He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.
“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.
“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.
“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”
Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”
How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers
Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.
The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.
After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.
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