TOPICS > Health

Virus Hunter Tracks New and Deadly Pathogens Around the Globe

November 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Stanford University biologist Nathan Wolfe is the founder and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative and one of the world's more prominent virus hunters. Ray Suarez and Wolfe discuss his new book, "The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age," and new viruses emerging around the planet.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, the work of a scientist who spends his days tracking killer diseases.

A nondescript office building in downtown San Francisco may seem like an unlikely headquarters for one of the world’s most prominent virus hunters, but it’s where Stanford University biologist Nathan Wolfe has setup his war room to monitor and study new, and potentially deadly, viruses emerging around the globe.

NATHAN WOLFE, Global Viral Forecasting Initiative: It looks like we’re going to release an Ebola finding on Monday.

RAY SUAREZ: The 41-year-old Wolfe is the founder and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative. The mission sounds simple, but it’s not — detect pandemics and stop them before they spread.

How Wolfe and his team do that is a mix of high-tech detective work and old fashioned on-the-ground epidemiology research. And it’s the subject of his new book, “The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age.”

I sat down with Wolfe in his office.

NATHAN WOLFE: What we’re looking at is this interface between human and animal populations. And we’re trying to basically catch the really early stages of these pandemics, the moment at which, frankly, the pandemic is born or an epidemic is born.

And I always joke that if you go to you know Ocean Beach here in San Francisco, you will always see people running up and kissing their dogs. And that’s a moment of cross-species transmission.  

ACTRESS: The average person touches their face three to five times every waking minute. In between, we’re touching doorknobs, water fountains and each other.

RAY SUAREZ: A much more serious, but fictional, cross-species transmission was the focus of this summer’s thriller “Contagion,” in which millions died from a virus found in pigs and bats. Wolfe was a technical director on the film.

In the real world, viruses, the microscopic pathogens that invade and destroy host cells, have been jumping from animals to humans for ages. But with the huge increases in modern air traffic, an outbreak in one country quickly becomes a problem for the rest of the world.

NATHAN WOLFE: The challenge that we face right now is, we’re so interconnected, that these viruses can spread in a day around the world. They can go from Central Africa, Southeast Asia. They can get to Tokyo. They can get to New York City. That’s crystal-clear.

RAY SUAREZ: That global interconnectedness was highlighted in recent years with the SARS outbreak in 2003, and more recently with the H1N1 swine flu virus that started in Mexico. It quickly infected millions.

And then there’s AIDS. At a 2009 TED Talk, Wolfe pointed out that millions of lives could potentially have been saved if the AIDS virus had been discovered when it first crossed from chimps to humans.

NATHAN WOLFE: This photo was taken before the Great Depression in Brazzaville, Congo. At this time, there were thousands of individuals, we think, that were infected with HIV. If this virus was in thousands of individuals at this point, why was it the case that it took us until 1984 to be able to discover this virus?

RAY SUAREZ: At his headquarters, Wolfe has assembled a team of savvy young computer gurus who comb the Internet, using sophisticated algorithms, to search for the digital clues that could indicate the outbreak of a disease.

NATHAN WOLFE: People, if they’re sick, will search on a certain kind of symptoms, or at least a number of them will. So, at every moment, whether people are searching or tweeting or texting, people are increasingly sending off massive amounts of data that give us potential clues into what they’re doing, what they’re thinking.

RAY SUAREZ: But to really understand what viral threats are lurking out there, Wolfe has to get out of the office. Wolfe and his colleagues have been trekking through dense jungles in West Africa and parts of Asia, studying the close interactions between humans and the animals they hunt and eat.

The unhygienic conditions in which the bush meat or wild game is captured, prepared and eaten allows blood, bodily fluids and viruses to pass between hunter and prey.

NATHAN WOLFE: We have been working, say, in parts of Central Africa for over 10, 12 years just working with these populations year in and year out. And we’re able to document this sometime, literally to watch these viruses as they’re jumping over from animals into human populations.

We see novel retroviruses, so viruses that are in the same broad family as HIV, moving over into these hunters from animals that they have hunted.

RAY SUAREZ: Wolfe’s team has collected more than 200,000 blood and tissue samples from animals, hunters and their families in Africa and Asia, field labs Wolfe describes as viral listening posts. Those samples are continuously analyzed by scientists for signs that new pathogens are crossing over to humans.

A lot of the places that you identify as sort of the petri dishes for future threats are also places with tiny gross national products, places that just getting through the day is a big enough threat, much less worrying about tiny viruses and future threats that are somewhere out there in the forest.

NATHAN WOLFE: Look, I think this is a really pivotal point. We will sit with these populations.

And they say: Look, yes, we understand animals get sick and die. We see sick animals. We also know that we can acquire some of these illnesses. Our family members have been hunting and butchering all their lives. You know, this is our primary source, at least for now, for animal protein.

As a virologist, I didn’t sort of expect that I would come to advocating for focusing on world poverty and protein alternatives in Central Africa, but that’s part of the problem.

RAY SUAREZ: The significance of Wolfe’s work is reflected in the organizations supporting him, the Department of Defense, Google, the National Institutes of Health, and the Skoll and Gates foundations, which also fund the NewsHour.

NATHAN WOLFE: Almost every time there’s one of these outbreaks, it’s a new virus from animals that jump into humans.

RAY SUAREZ: What keeps him up at night and the reason why there has been so much interest in his work is the threat of a super-killer virus that’s both easily transmittable and lethal.

NATHAN WOLFE: These viruses mutate at an incredible rate. So something which is highly transmissible, but not very deadly could become very deadly.

When H1N1 was on its way — the so-called swine flu was on its way racing around the world, one of the dangers is that it would get into some pig or some duck, or even a person that was simultaneously infected with another strain of flu, for example, something like H5N1, and that these viruses would actually sort of mix and match genes.

If that happened, there’s that small probability where we would get a virus that had the capacity to spread effectively and had the capacity to kill. And that’s the thing that, obviously, we’re all afraid of.

RAY SUAREZ: Wolfe says too much attention is placed on responses to outbreaks, and more funding and research needs to be placed on early detection.

NATHAN WOLFE: Pandemic prevention, this is increasingly something that people are recognizing as an issue. But it’s going to take some time for the resources to catch up. We need, you know, basically hundreds of millions of dollars to do this work, really, at the end of the day, billions of dollars.

And I just think it can’t be reiterated enough. These are not the kind of things that should be cut when it comes time to cutting budgets. If so, we’re just sitting there, bullets are dodging left and right, and we’re basically ignoring the shooters.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “The Viral Storm.”

Nathan Wolfe, thanks a lot.

NATHAN WOLFE: Thank you.