“The Plague Fighters: Stopping the Next Pandemic Before it Occurs”

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The Story

“The Plague Fighters: Stopping the Next Pandemic Before it Occurs”
by Evan Ratliff
Wired, April 24, 2007

The Pitch

[Ratliff notes that the information in this pitch letter has not been verified, and some information changed substantially in the reporting of the story.]

Bush meat and the next pandemic

Where will the next Ebola, SARS, dengue, avian flu, or HIV come from? The one feature that our most feared diseases share is that all of them originated in animal reservoirs — as viruses that were largely harmless to their animal hosts — and then made the jump to humans (or in the case of avian flu, continually threaten to make that jump). It follows, then, that the thriving bush meat trade — the hunting and sale of elephants, wild pigs, antelope, and primates, in remote areas of high biological diversity and particularly in Africa — is perhaps the most likely source for the next pandemic. As urban bush meat markets grow, fueled by the collapse of traditional industries and the surge of development pushing roads further into remote forests, the threat of new diseases leaping the boundary from animals to humans grows daily.

Nathan Wolfe, a 36-year-old professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins — soon moving to UCLA, where he will run the new Center for Viral Emergence — is dedicated to preventing that leap. Wolfe, who has spent his early career studying the relationship between viruses and traditional hunters in Uganda and Cameroon (often traveling with hunters into the bush for extended periods), led a team of researchers that documented in 2004, for the first time, retroviruses similar to HIV passing from primates to hunters and butchers in Cameroon. Wolfe also has two significant scientific papers submitted for publication next year, in Science and Nature: one co-authored with Jared Diamond on the origins of disease, the other on Ebola’s jump to humans.

Wolfe, however, has embarked on a much more ambitious project, to not only understand the mechanisms by which viruses transfer to humans, but to establish a warning system that can detect the next pandemic before it spreads. Using, among other funding, the $500,000 Pioneer Award he won from the NIH in 2005 (a kind of “Genius” grant for biomedical researchers), he is setting up a network of scientists and hunters in indigenous areas across the globe (including, so far, the DRC, Cameroon, Laos, Paraguay, and Malaysian Borneo). Equipped with a new
technology which allows the hunters to collect samples and then keep them at room temperature during week-long forays into the bush, and sequencing techniques which allow rapid elucidation of new microbes, he is building a library of bacteria and viruses both virulent and benign. By studying those microbes and monitoring the places where they emerge, he believes we can spot the next Ebola, SARS, or Avian flu before or as it makes the jump to humans.

”We call it virus chatter,” he told me recently. “In the intelligence community you have people monitoring intelligence and looking for keywords. Every time a keyword comes up it’s not going to be a terrorist, but by studying the patterns you can begin to understand what you might be looking for. I study some agents that are very unlikely to be pandemic, but we are asking, where did they die out? What are the features? What are the signs that we look for? To not just focus on the ones that are deadly, but to determine what the factors that make them deadly, and most importantly, how to they spread among humans.” Wolfe, in other words, is studying not hot zones — where viruses have already broken out — but cold ones, where the swirling mixture of biology serves to churn them up. “We’re trying to break out of the medical model, where you just find things that are deadly and treat them,” he says.

This would be a feature story of a global danger that originates in the most remote environment, traced through a young scientist grappling with the problem. It would meet Wolfe in his lab at UCLA and then follow him to a location in the field, as he builds his network of monitors on the front lines of bush meat hunting. The resulting piece would be a unique look at how viruses emerge, and how we can potentially confront disease outbreaks before they develop into pandemics.

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