The strange case of the air marshal who was stabbed by a needle during the Ebola outbreak

Someone jabbed him with a needle in an airport in Nigeria. Was it the beginning of a new type of terrorism?

The terminal at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria, was packed. Inside, a small team of U.S. air marshals wormed its way through the crowd. They had a plane to catch: United Flight 143 to Houston. It was Sunday, Sept. 7, and that was the day’s mission.

The exact size of this group of air marshals is an operational secret. Even how many people are employed by the federal air marshal service is not shared. But the number has certainly grown since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, renewed fear of hijacked planes.

The air marshals in Lagos were following an expediter – a Nigerian airport worker charged with guiding them through the terminal and helping them get through security, said Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. But the air marshals were having trouble keeping up. They kept losing sight of the expediter. He was moving too fast. The air marshals were walking through the airport, nearly to the security checkpoint, other travelers passing them in every direction, jostling for space, when two men approached from the opposite direction. These two men didn’t stand out, until they brushed past the U.S. agents.

It happened in a flash, Adler said. One of the men jabbed a hypodermic needle into the arm of an air marshal and then melted into the crowd, he said. No shouting. No fighting. It took a moment to even realize what had occurred. By then, the two passing men had disappeared.

“The FAM,” said Adler, using familiar shorthand for federal air marshal, “responded like anyone would. He took [the needle] out and applied pressure.”

The air marshal didn’t panic. The syringe was secured, and the team of air marshals continued through security toward the airport gates. They called the U.S. Embassy, which sent someone to the airport with a dose of medication to prevent HIV infection. Then, the air marshals boarded their flight to Houston. And they were gone.

“You’re in the middle of a foreign country. There’s no 911 or U.S. support coming to your rescue,” Adler said. There was no reason to stick around.

And from here, the strange story takes on even odder proportions.

What was in the syringe? What had the air marshal been injected with? Why? And what if it was Ebola? In September, Nigeria was in the middle of a small Ebola outbreak – 19 people in Nigeria were infected with the deadly pathogen by a man who had taken a flight from Liberia in late July. A much worse Ebola outbreak raged nearby in three West African nations.

The U.S. government has worried about Ebola terrorism for years. In 2001, after a series of anthrax attacks in the United States, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases expanded its research interests to include bio-defense threats. The agency created a list of pathogens with high mortality in need of medical countermeasures. These “category A priority pathogens” included anthrax, plague, smallpox and Ebola. Millions of dollars in funding supported the research – research that is now helping to fight the Ebola outbreak. In 2006, then-U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff ruled that Ebola “presents a material threat against the United States population sufficient to affect national security.”

When the United flight landed at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the stabbed air marshal was quietly taken to the hospital. He was tested. No signs of any health problems, Adler said. The syringe was tested. There were no signs of any toxins or pathogens. No Ebola. No HIV. Not even the flu.

The agent was placed on light duty for three weeks, Adler said, and then he returned to work.

“So far he hasn’t shown any symptoms of any Ebola exposure or some other fatal virus,” Adler said.

The incident flared up in the news media for a couple of days. And then the stories stopped.

Full article: The strange case of the air marshal who was stabbed by a needle during the Ebola outbreak (Washington Post)

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