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The chupacabra (Spanish name, literally goat-sucker) was first reported in the mid-1990s. A previously-unknown animal that attacked farmyard animals, at night, with unusual bite patterns, news was first spread from farmer to farmer before it was picked up by the popular press.
Since the sightings were first reported in Latin America, and the news carried by less-credible sources such as supermarket tabloids, the animal was not taken seriously at the beginning.
“We didn’t put a team on the ‘chupacabra’ until 2002,” said Dr. Martin Despatchio of the CDC, in an interview on Larry King Live. “No one believed in it. But, after the anthrax scare in 2001, when we had teams out looking for sources of the anthrax spores that had been used in the attacks, several of them heard independent reports and we figured, ‘What could it hurt to look?’”
The CDC initially didn’t find anything. An animal that was rare at best, that attacked only at night, and didn’t appear to feed in any kind of normal way, would be hard to catch. The investigation was put on a back burner. “With SARS, the flu epidemic, and funding cuts… something had to give way,” Dr. Despatchio said, “And the chupacabra project was what we didn’t do. In retrospect that might have been a poor decision.”
Then, in 2006, a live specimen of a chupacabra was trapped in Texas.
“‘Live’ is a generous way of describing it,” says LCDR Ronald Fortmontain of the US Public Health Service. The PHS took charge of the specimen. “We couldn’t quite place the species at first. Its appearance and behavior were just … weird. Although it had a mammalian body type, its core temperature was ambient. So, we needed to dissect it to make the determination. Which meant killing it. And that was just darned tough to do. The usual methods … carbon monoxide, potassium injection … had no effect. ”
The method that finally worked was shooting it in the brain.
“And that was when things got really weird,” Fortmontain said. “Cytologically, this thing was a coyote. A long dead coyote. But it had been moving and trying to attack. The biowar people had a lot of concern over smallpox, so the first thing we did was rule out smallpox. Then we figured, ‘maybe rabies.’ We did detect a virus, a previously unknown virus. We started playing around with it, using animal tests. And when we started getting the results back, we were wishing it had been smallpox or rabies.”
The virus, code-named “Z,” proved to be rapidly fatal among the test animals, “For some values of ‘fatal,’ says Fortmontain. “Some of the tests of death… no breathing, no heartbeat, no body heat, starting to decay… yes, you’d call it dead. But they were still moving. They were looking at you. They were going for you; you know, attacking. They had a rudimentary intelligence. It was, well, a lot of people were freaked out. And we figured, if we’re this freaked out, what are the civilians going to do when they hear?”
The Public Health Service, the CDC, and researchers at Johns Hopkins, the only ones who knew about Z Virus, had a problem. By then the chupacabra was being reported across most of Latin America and the American south and southwest. “They were pretty much coterminous with the range of the American coyote, and the coyote is everywhere; in cities, in rural New England, everywhere,” says Francine Corizon, public affairs officer for Johns Hopkins. “This was classified at a very high level. Special intelligence, compartmented information, I don’t know what all because I wasn’t cleared to know. Pretty much no one below echelon-one commands had an inkling. The decision to alert the public — we kicked that down the road, waiting for the day when the public couldn’t be kept in the dark any more. That day was coming, because we knew that the Z Virus could cross into the human population. Dr. Ernesto Diaz at the University Hospital of Mexico found that out the hard way. That was when everyone got really … serious about the problem. Coyotes on goats, hey, what’s new. People on people, that would be a bit more difficult to cover up.”
At the same time, in early 2011, the CDC launched its “Zombie Preparedness” campaign, supposedly a “light-hearted” approach to emergency preparedness. “But we were in deadly earnest,” said Dr. Despatchio. “About six people knew the whole story, and one of them, Geraldine Ritz, came up with that idea, and the Surgeon General said, ‘Go with it,’ so we did.”
At the same time, a team at Johns Hopkins and another team at the Public Health Service, in a facility in Florida, were working on a cure and a vaccine. “Cure, well, we wrote that off early on,” said Ms. Corizon. “If we found a cure it would be the first virus, ever, that anyone had actually cured. Usually, you just support the person until their own immune system takes care of the disease. But with this one, that wasn’t going to happen. It was too rapid. The other approach, using injections of either live attenuated or dead virus to produce immunity, well, the bio-ethical concerns were extreme. Even if we had something that sort-of worked, we were years from human trials if we could even get it past the ethics committee.”
After the Diaz Event, the teams that were working the problem had begun to carry sidearms. “The gallows humor, I can’t repeat most of the jokes. You had to have been there,” Dr. Despatchio said. “Mostly, the most common way people said ‘hello’ was ‘If it comes to that, do me.’ And the response would be ‘I’ll do us both.’”
That was the situation through 2011 and into 2012. The first documented cases of Z Virus among humans in the general population took place over the summer of 2012, “And we were pretty good about covering those up too,” says LCDR Fortmontain. “The people who had the right answer thought they were joking, and we let them think so. But a lot of us started sweating then. We knew all along that the outbreak, particularly given the animal reservoir of virus, wasn’t a question of ‘if.’ It was a question of ‘when.’ Now the answer to ‘when’ looked like ‘any day now.’
Which is where matters stood until this weekend. As anyone who has read the news knows, “When” would be the weekend of 6/7 October 2012.
“It’s a new world,” said Dr. Despatchio. Then, looking right at Larry King, he said, “If it comes to that, do me.”