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March 1, 2017

A Taste For Pork Helped A Deadly Virus Jump To Humans


It was a balmy Sunday evening in early 1999, and Dr. Kaw Bing Chua hadn’t had lunch or dinner.

There wasn’t time to eat. Chua was chasing a killer. And he thought maybe he had finally tracked it down.

He slid the slide under the microscope lens, turned on the scope’s light and looked inside. “A chill went down my spine,” Chua says. “The slide lit up bright green, like bright green lanterns.”

Right there, in Chua’s hands, was a virus the world had never seen before. And as he soon learned, it’s also one of the most dangerous ones.

Now Chua had enough of the virus to kill everyone in the lab. Maybe worse.

The new virus — eventually called Nipah — is on the World Health Organization’s list of viruses most likely to cause a global pandemic. It’s the virus that inspired the 2011 movie Contagion. And just this past January, governments and philanthropists pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a Nipah vaccine because it poses such a big threat.

Back in 1999, Nipah was spreading across Malaysia. And Chua was the only one who knew it.

But nobody believed him. Chua was still training in virology at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and didn’t have clout or confidence.

“I called my department head at his home. I said, ‘Prof, please come. I want to show you something,’ ” Chua says.

Chua’s professor told him to throw away the experiments — that Chua was wasting time. But Chua didn’t throw away the virus. Instead he packed it up and brought the samples to the U.S.

Living in a nightmare

An hour south of Chua’s laboratory experiments, a mysterious disease was devastating a farming town called Nipah. The disease was as deadly as Ebola, but instead of attacking blood vessels, it attacked the brain.

It felt like living in a nightmare, says Thomas Wong, who was a pig farmer in Nipah at the time. “Every day we were seeing in the newspaper that people were dying,” Wong says. “I lost many friends. Many friends.”


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