The Thin Red Thread

It is believed throughout East Asia that the gods connect those destined to meet by a thin red thread. My forthcoming book, The Thin Red Thread, tells the story of filoviruses like Marburg and ebolaviruses, and the lives they forever intertwined.

Ebola virions budding from a Vero cell.
Ebola virions (red) budding from a Vero cell (green monkey kidney epithelial cell line). Coloured scanning electron microscope photo. Image courtesy of NIH/NIAID.

In the sweltering summer of 1967, monkey handlers working for Behringwerke, a German manufacturer of poliomyelitis vaccines, began to fall ill and succumb to a mysterious, horrific illness, an illness that had no name until then – even the type of disease was so new, no term for it has existed until about two decades earlier, when Russian researchers encountered Crimean-Congo, the first of the diseases that came to be known as haemorrhagic fevers.

On 29 September 1976, a team of young researchers, working under Stefaan Pattyn, the seasoned chief of the microbiology lab at Antwerp’s Institute of Tropical Medicine, received a blue thermos bottle, straight from the pilot of a KLM flight out of Kinshasa. It was filled with dry ice, stained red with the contents of one of two glass vials, which broke in transit. The blood that stained the dry ice a bright salmon pink was drawn just two days earlier and half a world away, in a small village named Yambuku, in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo but was then called Zaire. It came from the bruised, brittle veins of Sister Myriam, of the Sisters of Our Lady of s’Gravenwezel, an order of Flemish nuns doing missionary work – mainly teaching and running clinics –, who has been the latest victim of a mysterious outbreak raging in Zaire’s distant Equateur province. Together, Peter Piot, Guido van der Groen and René Delgadillo opened the thermos flask with no more precautions as if it had been filled with some coffee. It carried millions of one of nature’s most perfect predators. Tiny, red, threadlike viral particles, swirling around in her blood like worms.

In the last month of 2013, a two-year-old boy and an Angolan free-tailed bat met. The boy fell ill on 2 December, and passed away on the 6th. Then, his sister fell ill. Then his mother. Then his grandmother. Then people in neighbouring villages. And by the summer of 2014, Liberia was counting 1,100 deaths from the ebolavirus outbreak per month. Then in December, Sierra Leone was hit. By the time it was over, the West African ebolavirus outbreak left over 11,300 dead. It was the single most devastating outbreak of any filovirus in history. But it started with a healthy bat. Why do bats survive what kills humans?

The Thin Red Thread tells the story of filoviruses, and the lives they touched. For years, I have looked at filoviruses as a researcher, focusing primarily on ebolavirus viral protein 24 (VP24) and its role in disabling the interferon response through its interaction with karyopherin alpha. This in turn led me to questions about the reservoir host of ebolaviruses, and how reservoir hosts’ interferon systems are capable of regulating ebolaviruses. But behind all the science and all the statistics lies a fascinating human story of curiosity, strength and courage in face of a terrible enemy. The Thin Red Thread is not just a viral history – it’s also a very human history of a virus.

The Thin Red Thread will be on the shelves by Christmas 2019 (because who wouldn’t want some Ebola under their Christmas tree!).