A mutated Ebola virus likely spread through the ventilation system of a Virginia medical lab in 1989 and infected dozens of monkeys in separate research rooms, highlighting the current potential of an airborne Ebola strain killing millions of people.

In late 1989, cynomolgus monkeys from the Philippines delivered to Hazleton Research Products’ Primate Quarantine Unit in Reston, Va., began dying at an alarming rate, prompting HRP to euthanize all the monkeys in that shipment, but during the 10 days after the euthanization, other monkeys in separate rooms connected only by air ducts began dying as well, which was attributed to an Ebola strain that went airborne.

“Due to the spread of infection to animals in all parts of the quarantine facility, it is likely that Ebola Reston may have been spread by airborne transmission,” wrote Lisa A. Beltz in the book Emerging Infectious Diseases. “On several subsequent occasions during 1989, 1990 and 1996, Ebola Reston killed monkeys in colonies in the United States.”

“Some of the people at the colony in Texas and several of the workers at the facility in the Philippines also produced antibodies to the virus but did not become ill.”

The 1989 incident validates concerns that a new, airborne strain of Ebola could infect humans, and if such a mutated strain already exists, it would easily explain why Ebola is currently spreading so rapidly in Africa.

For one thing, because Ebola doesn’t replicate itself perfectly every time it infects a victim, each new infection represents a potential mutation of the disease.

“If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola,” wrote Michael T. Osterholm of the New York Times. “Infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe, as the H1N1 influenza virus did in 2009, after its birth in Mexico.”

And due to the severity of the current outbreak in western Africa, which is the worst in history, Ebola has had more chances to mutate in the past four months than in the past 500 years.


“What is not getting said publicly, despite briefings and discussions in the inner circles of the world’s public health agencies, is that we are in totally uncharted waters and that Mother Nature is the only force in charge of the crisis at this time,” journalist Mac Slavo wrote.

What is known publicly, however, is that the State Department has taken the threat of Ebola so seriously it recently ordered 160,000 Hazmat suits, well over 100 times the number of federal workers currently in western Africa.

But just how large is the risk of Ebola mutating even further? Right now, it has the potential to infect – and kill – five million people in western Africa, according to a top German virologist.

“The right time to get this epidemic under control in these countries has been missed,” Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit of Hamburg’s Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine told Deutsche Welle. “That time was May and June; now it is too late.”


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