Virus Hunters Stalk the Next Global Epidemic

BY Ray Suarez  October 7, 2011 at 3:45 PM EST


Virus hunter Nathan Wolfe. Photo by Tom Clynes.

Ask the not-so-simple question of one of the world’s leading virologists, “What is a virus?” and the reaction is immediate. He sits up in his chair, throws one leg over another. Gesturing emphatically, he takes his visitors through a quick romp through the genetic frontiers and latest discoveries opening up the world of these microbes that share our world, and often make our bodies their home with devastating results.

Nathan Wolfe is the author of “The Viral Storm,” coming out Oct. 11 from Times Books, the founder of the Global Viral Forecasting initiative, a professor at Stanford University, and a man very comfortable with sounding the alarm about a world increasingly vulnerable to viral threat.

“H1N1 is the perfect example. It began [in 2009] with a handful of cases in Mexico and went on to infect 100 million people in one year,” Wolfe said. “That’s a big impact, even though a relatively small number of people died from the global pandemic, I think it’s about a hundred thousand, think if that had been a more virulent illness, that spread easily, but was much more deadly. The world got lucky.”

New cases of H1N1 were showing up in Mexico City emergency rooms even as people were heading into emergency rooms in the southern United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, with flu-like symptoms.

Wolfe marvels at the creatures that have become the center of his life’s work, at their adaptability, at their simplicity, at the speed of their mutation. He warns that hungry people in Africa and Southeast Asia, some of the world’s most biodiverse regions, are roaming further and further into the forest looking for wild animals to eat, and resources to pull out of nature. Logging roads, trucking routes, new settlements, and a hunger for sometimes scarce protein has humans coming into regular contact with animals they previously rarely saw.

Wild animals are getting viruses that normally live in humans. Humans are picking up viruses from animals — especially close primate relatives — by handling their carcasses, consuming their meat, and most worryingly coming into contact with monkey blood in the process.

“We’ve known for a long time that HIV was a virus in chimpanzees. And it’s only lately, with much better monitoring that we know it’s making chimps sick, too,” he said. “It was a virus in chimps that came into contact with a virus from a monkey the chimpanzees hunt. It combined, and probably passed to humans through the hunting and butchering of bush meat.”

Bush meat, the wild animals hunted by humans for their meat, comes up a lot in Wolfe’s stories. He’s done years of clinical work in Africa, looking for viruses and their new mutations in animals hunted by human beings, and in the human beings who hunt them. In “The Viral Storm” he describes watching an African woman butcher a monkey, as she handles the internal organs and is covered in blood by the time she’s done.

Just asking them, or telling them, to stop won’t change a thing, Wolfe says.

“You can say to that woman butchering a monkey that what she’s doing is really risky, and in many cases she already knows. But her life in an impoverished village is already full of risk,” he said. “These animals may be her family’s only source of protein. You may say, fine, replace it. Replace it with what?”

Wolfe has made the people of Africa his partners in hunting down and identifying viruses. His organization’s field work is carried out with employees and collaborators from the host countries who are trained by Wolfe and his team. They in turn pass on local knowledge and work with a zeal that comes from knowing the work might be saving their own people along with unknown millions across the world.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Wolfe-led work is the use of computers to create a global early detection system for outbreaks of disease.

At GVF’s San Francisco headquarters, young staff who jokingly call themselves “the nerd herd” monitor social media and other digital communication across the world. Armed with new kinds of software and search tools they watch for an uptick in searches, notes, queries that might contain key words and phrases like “body ache,” or “high fever” and the cross-hatching begins.

As people tell their friends, their workmates, their doctors they are sick, and search for diagnoses and care suggestions on line, they begin to fill in a portrait of a place that’s starting to suffer from an illness.

That welling up of communication tips off the GVF team far faster than waiting for a “morbidity and mortality” report compiled a month later by a regional or national ministry of health.

“And that early warning is key. If we can get to work a few days faster we can make a real difference in stopping an epidemic before it really has time to take hold,” Wolfe said.

It’s fascinating stuff. And it’s funny to recall that we’ve long used the language of epidemiology to describe how an idea spreads quickly from person to person in the digital realm: ideas and images “go viral” as they start quickly zipping from person to person to 10,000 people as fast as the web can carry them. Now in 2011, young researchers are looking for ways to use digital media to capture the first moments when a virus goes viral.

Wolfe’s big idea is simple, really. The possibility of inter-species transfer and the creation of some really nasty new viruses is with us every moment, so more money and effort has to be spent in identifying viruses, designing early warning systems for outbreaks, and then getting medicine and expertise quickly to effected areas.

“Think how different it could have been had we seen and understood HIV sooner. It’s changed the modern world,” he said.

The Stanford virologist is also excited about the potential for curing illnesses with viruses we either don’t know or don’t understand very well yet. He notes the recent discovery of a virus that may destroy tumors or retard their growth.

He uses the example of Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV. It’s present in a stunning half of all adults in the United States. A few strands of the virus family cause cervical cancer, while most others appear to be entirely benign.

What are the differences between the various HPVs that make some live happily ever after in some humans, while another variation causes a life-threatening illness? Wolfe sees human beings at the very beginning of an exciting era of discovery he likens to Columbus, Magellan, and Drake getting on ships in Europe and sailing the unknown world.

At a keyboard above Market Street in San Francisco, or freezing tissue samples from a freshly killed monkey in Cameroon, Nathan Wolfe is as excited as he’s ever been by the hunt.