Mark G. Kortepeter is a professor in the Department of Epidemiology, College of Public Health, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and a retired army colonel with more than twenty-five years of service. He is an expert in germ warfare defense and has held multiple leadership roles at the nation’s largest containment laboratory dedicated to biological warfare defense, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). His new book Inside the Hot Zone: a Soldier on the Front Lines of Biological Warfare (Potomac Books) will be released in January 2020.
I enjoyed watching a premier recently of the forthcoming National Geographic thriller movie series “The Hot Zone,” based on the bestselling book of the same name about Ebola virus. It was only fitting that USAMRIID, the U.S. Army’s bioweapons defense lab featured in the film, hosted the event.
As a physician-scientist who spent 7 ½ years as a leader at USAMRIID, including working on Ebola inside the containment laboratory, I couldn’t help but chuckle at some of the technical inaccuracies in the film. However, I want to highlight the things the producers got right, including a realistic looking lab setup and a nice demonstration of the multiple safety redundancies and practiced procedures used in the lab for containing deadly viruses. Hats off to the producers as well for giving us a strong scientist heroine, who is based on Colonel (retired) Nancy Jaax (portrayed by actress Julianna Margulies). Nancy served as a pioneering veterinary pathologist in the Biosafety Level 4 containment lab and she inspired many women to pursue a career in science. At the screening, it was fun catching up with Nancy, as well as many other former USAMRIID colleagues.
“The Hot Zone” scared a lot of people when it came out 25 years ago, but more importantly, it raised the public’s awareness of Ebola, and helped fuel interest in discovering vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments against Ebola. But developing new countermeasures takes decades and can cost billions of dollars. In my forthcoming real life medical thriller, Inside the Hot Zone: a Soldier on the Front Lines of Biological Warfare, I take the reader on a new rollercoaster ride through the halls of USAMRIID, where they experience the challenges, feel the frustrations, and celebrate the successes with me, in our dogged pursuit of countermeasures against anthrax, smallpox, Ebola, and other feared infectious disease killers.
Sadly, Ebola remains relevant today. The second largest Ebola outbreak ever continues unabated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and recently surpassed 1,800 cases. It is an important reminder of the ongoing need for dedicated scientists, like Nancy Jaax and my other colleagues who toil away “Inside the Hot Zone,” to bring us new tools to treat and prevent the disease. The important work must continue.