- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2000

BALTIMORE Robert Myers spends his days and nights cutting open crows and blue jays to find the causes of the latest and most highly publicized disease of the new century, the West Nile virus.
The dead birds are piled up inside his laboratory at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore.
"You get to where you don't even notice the smell," said Maryland's chief microbiologist.
Part of his job is to calm public fears by dousing them with buckets of cold, hard facts.
As the facts emerge in this case, it turns out the victims of the West Nile virus are rarely human. Symptoms of the viral infection are so mild that many infected people don't even know they have it.
The fatal effects, rather, fall mostly upon the unloved crow that huge winged beast that roosts in trees and screeches all day. Once infected, 98 out of 100 will die.
Yet, panic set in last year when seven New Yorkers with depleted immune systems with an average age of 78 died of encephalitis caused by the virus.
Hysteria mounted again in August when an 80-year-old in New Jersey died, also of encephalitis.
The virus may yet morph into the national scourge predicted by some researchers and trumpeted in tabloid headlines this summer.
If so, it will deserve the millions spent to study the virus and develop a vaccine for humans.

The virus jackpot

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta already has pumped an extra $7 million in research money into labs like Mr. Myers' in 44 states, four cities and the District to gather information on the virus. A share of the money will pay for stakeout teams to keep the birds under surveillance over the winter, says Stephen Ostroff of the CDC.
Politicians have joined the virus hunt, too.
On Oct. 11, while his wife and fellow Democrat, Hillary Rodham Clinton, campaigned for the U.S. Senate, President Clinton declared a state of emergency in New York and directed $5 million in federal funds be given scientists there to attack the virus.
The money, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would reimburse cities for 75 percent of the cost of mosquito spraying. The District of Columbia is not likely to receive a check, since city officials never got around to order spraying.
These millions have not been thrown into the laps of local scientists just to save crows and birds.
The reason is partly political, and partly pure public fear.
Read all about it:
"More Funds Urged to Battle Invasive Species" the Chicago Tribune warned the nation.
"Transatlantic Travels: Journey of an Outbreak" said Newsday on Oct. 3, as it tracked the probable path of the virus from Africa to North America.
"Beware of Bloodsuckers," said the Daily News, two days earlier.
Such headlines have added the virus to the fear list of other, earlier dreads, like the yet-to-arrive killer-bee invasion from Mexico, or the relentless, northward march of red fire ants who supposedly attack humans in battalion strength. Their many stings were said to have the knockout power of a poisonous snake.

Where it began

West Nile virus was first isolated and identified in a woman in the West Nile region of Uganda in 1937. It entered Europe in 1996 when an outbreak in Romania made nearly 300 people sick, 14 of whom died. In 1998, the virus reappeared in Israel, where it had been dormant since an outbreak in the 1950s.
No one knows how the virus migrated to North America.
Locally, infected crows died in the District, Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, prompting researchers to theorize the virus is spreading southward. Last weekend, a dead crow was found in Hampton, Va., the fifth such bird to die in the state.
The New Yorker magazine rarely zany reported last November the Central Intelligence Agency was worried the West Nile virus was a bioterrorism attack launched by Saddam Hussein.
The magazine's source was a book written by a man using the name Mikhael Ramadan, who says he is an Iraqi defector. He wrote that Iraqi leader Saddam was planning to make a weapon out of a strain of the West Nile virus.
He warned it could destroy 97 percent of all life in cities. New York and Washington come to mind as targets.
The plot is not unfolding as the magazine's source predicted. But a whole lot of crows are dying, which is enough to keep scientists interested, and on a war footing against the strange virus.
A $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was awarded to a Boston research firm to develop the vaccine to fight it.

A bloody war

"When this started we anticipated … between 400 and 500 birds [would come in for testing]," Mr. Myers, the Maryland microbiologist, said.
So far, they have picked up more than 1,000 birds in Maryland alone, and performed autopsies on most of them.
Mr. Myers is watching his lab assistant, Sharon Taylor, do something to a crow that makes a reporter's stomach churn.
Dressed in white scrubs, hands covered in blue, elbow-length gloves, Ms. Taylor weighs a pitch-black crow.
The bird is the catch of the day. A fresh specimen. It was picked up less than a day ago in an Anne Arundel County neighborhood and looks almost alive, its eyes bright and its feathers smooth and shiny.
"Some of the birds we get have been lying around for days [and] are are already rotting," she said.
The weighing complete, she takes a sterilized scalpel and pushes back the feathers on top of the head, revealing the yellowish-pink skull of the bird. Carefully, she cuts it open, until she can flip it back, like a lid, and scoop out the gray, gooey brain into a little plastic jar.
"They call me the brain-scooper," she says with a laugh. Mystifyingly, she says she loves her job.
A pea-sized portion of the brain will later be extracted and its RNA (ribonucleic acid) tested for the virus.
The whole procedure of taking the brain out of a crow and getting a result on it will take between four and five days. "This is my sixth crow today," says Ms. Taylor as she wraps the crow in blue paper and packs it neatly in a plastic bag.
If the bird tests positive for the virus, it will be frozen for its insides to be studied by pathologists at a later date. If negative, it will be incinerated.
At hand are 15 more jars for other birds, including blue jays, that Ms. Taylor will work on during the day. She spends almost all her working hours here, instead of in her tiny room next door which is adorned with a stuffed crow and a preserved dead mosquito.
A big chunk of the West Nile virus-fighting money has been focused on eradicating its primary transmitter, the night-flying Culex Pipiens, or Northern House mosquito, which flourishes in and near cities. Before temperatures cooled this spring, regions dispatched night crews to spray a chemical known as permethrin in a two-mile radius of neighborhoods where a dead crow was found.
Being physical weaklings, mosquitoes are not hard to catch. The Culex Pipiens, for example, can barely fly 200 feet before it must land and rest. But the fight to kill them and end the threat may prove harder than previously thought.
There is a chance a species of mosquito called the Asian Tiger, which entered the country in the 1980s, could join the Culex Pipiens as a principal transmitter of the virus.
The Asian Tiger is a day stalker, so the nighttime spraying would not lay a glove on it, says Cyrus Lesser, chief of the mosquito control division of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. He spoke at a conference at the University of Maryland at College Park where veterinarians and health officials in the Washington area were briefed on the virus.
The Asian Tiger likes to live in small corrugations in plastic pipes, or cars and trucks.
The CDC will hold a West Nile summit this winter to map out a containment plan to keep the virus from becoming as big a threat as Lyme disease, he said.

The virus industry

A year ago, Joseph Scaletta's job did not exist.The young epidemiologist now heads up Maryland's health and mental hygiene team, formed from grant money to investigate the West Nile Virus.
Part of his job is to analyze surveillance data on the virus and oversee a 24-hour hot line where six operators take more than 200 calls a day reporting dead birds.
The hot line is just one part of a huge health investigation spawned by a virus that was foreign to the American vocabulary until just a little more than a year ago.
The federal and state virus-busting money gives employment to hundreds of health workers around the country.
Workers are being trained specifically to fight the disease by the CDC. The more impassioned researchers say the virus could be the biggest foreign health scourge to hit the country since the Hantavirus in 1993, and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) before that.
Cooler heads predict the West Nile bug will be nothing like other viruses that have crossed the seas, like the Spanish influenza, brought home by returning soldiers, that killed almost 700,000 people in the United States between 1918 and 1919. There were some summer months in which people died so quickly their bodies were put in cold storage until workers could find time to bury them, according to books, encyclopedias and coroners' reports.
These are different times. Researchers are taught to assume the worst when an exotic virus suddenly appears.
"The bioterrorism theory may be sensational, but it cannot be ruled out," says Dr. Antonio Garmendia of the University of Connecticut. "At this point, everything is a possibility."

Vaccine questioned

In August, the NIH awarded a $3 million grant to Boston-based OraVax Inc., to develop the vaccine against the virus.
Such a vaccine, however, may take three years to develop and at least another two years to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. No one knows what it would cost.
"By the time we have a vaccine, the virus could have taken hold across America," says Mr. Ostroff of the CDC.
Despite the money scientists have already received, they have yet to come up with some basic facts like how the virus came to North America.
"We have no idea yet," says Mr. Garmendia, who helped isolate the virus from a red-tailed hawk in February. "But the deal is, it is here to stay."
Scientists say the rate at which birds and forest animals like chipmunks, rabbits and raccoons are falling ill means the food chain will be knocked awry, at some point.
Nature has given scientists a reprieve, however: Winter is approaching.

Not-so-silent spring

Every day that passes brings the region closer to the mosquitoes' dying season. When the temperature dips below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, their muscles weaken in the cool air and they cannot fly to where the best blood is found, the back of a man's neck, say, or a crow resting on a branch.
The virus will disappear after the first regional freeze, when its winged carriers are disabled or dead.
But it does not die. It survives in the host bodies of mosquitoes that hibernate in warm places like the insides of tunnels and old forts ready to re-emerge as the weather warms up.

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