Lab worker caught a deadly rare virus from a research monkey

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A lab worker’s body is turning numb after catching a deadly rare virus – from a research monkey.

Brian Lee, 60, is one of around 20 people in the world with herpes B virus and has been living a ‘nightmare’ for the past 10 years.

The virus is harmless to primates but fatal to humans in 70 per cent of cases if untreated, causing inflammation of the brain and spinal cord which leads to paralysis.

Mr Lee, of San Antonio, Texas, was struck down with it while working at Texas Biomedical Research Institute, where 2,500 primates are tested for research into diseases such as AIDS.

His job was to clean enclosures and feed monkeys. Every day he layered up in a protective bodysuit and glasses to protect him from splashes and bites.  

But in the summer of 2008, water splashed in his eye when he was spraying down a cage. He was also cut by a shard of plastic that tore his bodysuit.

On August 19, after undergoing a routine medical exam for B virus, he received a phone call telling him he had been infected.

He was rushed to hospital where he spent six days hooked up to an IV and having various tests before being prescribed anti-viral medication and discharged.

Ten years on, Mr Lee said his life has never been the same and revealed how, starting with his face, his body has gradually turned numb.

The grandfather-of-four said: ‘It has been a nightmare.

‘Before this happened I felt like I was in control of my life and there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.

‘Then I got the diagnosis and it was surreal. I was in shock. I knew I had an exposure but the possibility of actually having the virus was remote.

‘I didn’t know what the next step would be or what the next day would bring and I was totally traumatized.

‘Knowing that most people die within days of getting it… at that point, what do you do? I was in the doctors’ hands.’

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, around 70 percent of untreated patients die unless they are treated immediately.  

‘Walking out of the hospital I felt that my face was numb and my cheeks felt funny. I ran straight back in and they said, “It’s the virus or the medication”,’ he said.

Mr Lee added: ‘After that I came home and little by little, piece by piece, my body started having that kind of reaction.

‘One day I was taking a shower and washed my leg and it was numb. That was terrifying because I knew it was another step. Now my whole body is numb.

‘My balance is off, I have tingling in my feet and I also have a feeling of heaviness on my chest.

‘It is scary because I don’t know what the future holds for me.

‘Even with the antiviral therapy, most patients die of the encephalomyelitis or complications of the virus.

‘I feel like I’m alone dealing with this because I can’t talk to anybody else who has it.

‘If someone has cancer or some other disease, you can relate and talk to somebody. I’m not able to do that.’

Since B virus was discovered in 1932, there have only been 50 documented human infections, 21 of which were fatal, according to US government figures. 

The virus is so dangerous that the US Department of Justice listed it as a potential tactical agent of terrorism in 2003.

To keep frightening symptoms at bay, Mr Lee takes the anti-viral drug Valtrex, which halts but does not cure herpes outbreaks and is usually prescribed for only around a week. 

Valtrex prevents or slows the virus from replicating and is thought to be what is keeping Mr Lee alive.

Due to the disease being so rare, his prognosis is unclear, however, he doctors imagine he would die or experience brain damage if he stopped taking the drug.

It is not clear what is causing him to experience numbness, but Dr Julia Hilliard said the symptom has been experienced by others who have been diagnosed with B virus.

The Georgia State University professor, who is director of the B Virus Resource Center, said: ‘It’s like roulette.

‘In some people it is completely dormant but in others it has caused neurological problems which cause death or a slow decline.

‘They report tingling, burning, headaches or temperature sensitivity that is very painful for them to stand.’

Mr Lee’s illness is thought to be ‘dormant’. 

His tingling and numbness may be due to his medication or just old age, rather than being a symptom of the disease. 

Dr Hilliard added that the majority of recorded cases of B virus transmissions to date have occurred in the US as a result of contact with macaques in research facilities.

This leads her to believe the virus is more likely to be transmitted when the animals are in captivity, because ‘they will get stressed when procedures are performed’.

Before starting his job at the lab, Mr Lee claims he was asked to sign a waiver informing him of the risks of B virus. He and other staff members also had safety training.

Following his infection, he called ‘two dozen lawyers’ but was unable to take legal action against the lab due to no one be willing to take the case.

Mr Lee continued to work at the lab but said he was moved to a different department and his workload was reduced before he was dismissed in 2013.

He was awarded $18,500 (£14,190) in a mediation settlement after he accused the research facility of discriminating against him and is now retired.

As well as his ailing health – which could be a result of the virus or the medication – he says the ordeal has placed a strain on his mental wellbeing.

While he and his wife Margarita, 53, have been able to have sexual intercourse because the virus does not pass from human to human, he claims there is a huge stigma.

Mr Lee, who worked in military communications before starting his job at the lab, has not yet told his two adult children, who live in New York, about his diagnosis.

He added: ‘I have tried to continue on with life but you are conscious of it.

‘I feel like I’m a guinea pig because the doctors don’t know the effects of the drugs and said they won’t know what’s going on with my body until after I die.

‘It’s pretty scary. It’s also hard to talk about it. I have mentioned it to a few people outside my circle and the reaction you get is weird.

‘One person I spoke to said, “That’s stupid, taking the job knowing you could get a deadly virus”. Hindsight is 20/20. People don’t understand.

‘It means everything for my wife and I to be able to tell my story. I feel helpless.’

Texas Biomedical Research Institute’s Southwest National Primate Research Center is a non-profit facility housing 2,500 monkeys, including Indian-origin rhesus macaques.

A spokeswoman said: ‘Safety is one of Texas Biomedical Research Institute’s core values, and we continually assess our procedures and seek ways to enhance our safety protocols.

‘We do not discuss information related to employees, past or present.’

The facility has come under fire in recent months, with rights activists calling for the lab to close and all its inhabitants to be released to a sanctuary.

On April 2, two macaques were injured after an employee failed to properly secure a latch between the monkeys’ cages and on April 14 four baboons escaped.

PETA slammed the facility for its ‘sloppy’ animal care, saying its ‘negligence’ put ‘Texas Biomed’s own staff, the public, and nonhuman primates at risk’. 

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