‘The Hot Zone’ sends an important warning about our future

Dr. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies) shows her id badge at the security gate as she enters Fort Derrick. (National Geographic/Amanda Matlovich)

In 1989, the United States saw its first Ebola outbreak. The deadly virus appeared in a scientific facility just outside of Washington, D.C. The threat managed to fall beneath the radar. The crisis only caught the world’s attention in 1994, when Richard Preston released his bestselling book, “The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story.”

A hot zone is a facility where scientists study biohazard pathogens. The Center for Disease Control classifies the Ebola virus as a Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) disease. Working with dangerous microbes (such as Ebola) in this environment requires the highest level of biosafety containment, as “infections caused by these microbes are frequently fatal and without treatment or vaccines.”

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Things are Just Heating Up

On May 27, at 9/8c, National Geographic will begin airing a six-part miniseries inspired by the real-life events included in the book called, “The Hot Zone.” The show will run for three consecutive nights. The series stars Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actress Julianna Margulies, Noah Emmerich, “Game of Thrones” actor Liam Cunningham, Topher Grace, Paul James, Nick Searcy, Robert Wisdom, Robert Sean Leonard, James D’Arcy, and Grace Gummer.

Fox 21 Television Studios, Lynda Obst Productions, and Scott Free Productions produce the series. Furthermore, Kelly Sounders and Brian Peterson serve as showrunners and executive producers, with Jeff Vintar as a co-executive producer. Directors Michael Uppendahl and Nick Murphy are also on board.

Margulies takes on the role of Dr. Nancy Jaax, the chief pathologist from the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), who was on the front lines of the U.S. Ebola outbreak in Reston, Virginia, during the ‘80s.

After the Army veterinarian discovered that monkeys shipped from the Philippines were testing positive for Ebola, she enlisted the help of Dr. Wade Carter (played by Cunningham) in an urgent attempt to stop the virus from spreading.

Image: National Geographic/Casey Crafford

We Didn’t Start the Fire

The series is set in 1989 and flashes back to the ‘70s when Carter and Trevor Rhodes (James D’Arcy) discovered the first known cases of the Zaire ebolavirus—which has a 90 percent fatality rate. “The scary bit is, is that the second to largest ever outbreak of Ebola is happening today,” Liam Cunningham told The Burn-In’s Sari Cohen at the “Hot Zone” premiere in Los Angeles on May 9.

“If we don’t fire a lot of equipment, money, and manpower at this, it’s going to come and bite us on the ass again. Because it landed here in 1989 on a plane. It was 10 miles away from the White House. And if we sit back and go, ‘It’s not terrible,’ it’s going to get us. We don’t take it seriously enough because it’s invisible,” Cunningham continued. “And it’s halfway around the world. We’re very, very foolish if we don’t do something.”

As Cunningham pointed out, the timing of this show’s release is of great importance. Ebola is a danger to everyone. It doesn’t discriminate. All of us, all over the world, should be doing more. We can be doing more.

“The thing about it is it’s not going to overwhelm us unless we let it. Unless we sit back and do nothing,” Cunningham added. “Because they are developing vaccines, there is a lot of work being done. But there’s also Ebola medical clinics being burnt down. The personnel are being shot, while those people are trying to help. And it’s not evil people; it’s uneducated. It’s people who are ignorant. Who haven’t been properly explained what’s being done. We really need to step up to the plate and get behind this, because we can beat it. But, it’ll beat us if we do nothing.”

Adding Fuel to the Fire

Noah Emmerich, who stars as Dr. Jerry Jaax (husband of Nancy Jaax), followed up with a similar message. Emmerich says what initially drew him to the role is the metaphor in this story.

“In the eyes of Ebola, we’re all the same,” he tells The Burn-In. “And in order to win this war, we need to act as one family. I think that’s the metaphor for our culture right now; this divisiveness, this differentiation, this hostility, will not allow us to continue as human beings. We need to work together as one family to protect the planet, to protect ourselves, to protect each other. I found the most compelling narrative of this story is that we are one family, and we’re vulnerable to it all. We’re all in it together. We need to realize that, wake up and start acting accordingly. We’re all food for Ebola,” he continued, “unless we start to function as one unit together. That’s what we need to do as human beings, on so many different issues.”

“The Hot Zone” is a true story. It’s thrilling, well-told, well-crafted, and relevant. The series isn’t just a scientific narrative; it’s about family. There is a big-picture human element to it, which Margulies makes a point to address onscreen.

Unfortunately, the first people Ebola strikes down are those who are showing compassion; people who are trying to help. Our nurses, doctors, and caretakers are laying down their lives, and we should be protecting those who are protecting others.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

Dr. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies) receives a call about a man with a fever in Reston. (Image: National Geographic/Amanda Matlovich)

Thankfully, while the three cases of Ebola reported in 1989 did spread to humans, there were no human casualties. Scientists initially thought the virus at the lab in Reston was Ebola Zaire. However, they eventually diagnosed and named the unidentified strain the “Reston ebolavirus.”

To this day, the Reston virus’ origin remains unknown. In total, there have been 28 Ebola outbreaks since the disease was first discovered in 1976.

Nancy and Jerry Jaax retired after almost 30 years in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. Notably, the couple is still actively fighting Ebola. Thanks to their groundbreaking work and courageous effort in Reston in 1989, they laid the foundation for new outbreak protocols.

Unfortunately, the battle is nowhere near over, which is hopefully something “The Hot Zone” series will call attention to.

In 2014, when Ebola broke out in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, 11325 people died. Plus, the Democratic Republic of Congo saw an alarming new outbreak of Ebola in 2018. Over 500 people have died in this wave, and efforts to contain the virus have failed.

While researchers have developed and are currently using experimental vaccines and treatments to fight Ebola in Africa, there is still no cure.

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Sari Cohen is a journalist based in the Greater L.A. Area. She began her career in the entertainment industry as a stand-up comedy writer/performer and over the years has developed scripts for both the stage and screen. She currently covers music and live entertainment for AXS, reviews movies for Hollywood First Look Features and writes for InLove Magazine. She also pens funny stuff for popular sites such as Cracked and Screen Rant. You can often find her at concerts or on a red carpet somewhere, talking to someone about something. From on-the-scene reporting to exclusive interviews, she tackles every topic from music, movies and television, to fashion, lifestyle and politics. You can check out more on Twitter at @ask_sari or follow her adventures on Instagram under @thesavvyscribbler.