How can we make sure what happens in the movie Contagion doesn't happen in real life? Nathan Wolfe, PhD, has some ideas, and the visiting Stanford human biology professor - who was recently named one of the most influential people in the world by Time - has a new book that discusses pandemics and provides his vision for predicting and preventing outbreaks. Writer Sarah Jane Keller highlights his work in a Stanford Report article today:
Wolfe's firsthand knowledge from over a decade of virus hunting is woven throughout the book. His early work in Cameroon, in west-central Africa, sent him to villages where the inhabitants relied on wild game, or bushmeat, for protein. When hunters contact animal fluids during butchering, it makes them especially vulnerable to hosting novel bugs. Many viruses, like HIV and influenza, jumped to humans from other animals.
Hunters are important allies for studying emerging disease. By enlisting them to collect thousands of blood samples, Wolfe and his colleagues found unique forms of viruses, including retroviruses like HIV. Since then, Wolfe and his team have established the Cameroon monitoring system in countries throughout the world, including China, Southeast Asia and other parts of central Africa.
Wolfe founded the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, which aims to find potential pandemics in more than 20 counties. As Keller explains:
A digital surveillance team monitors chatter on hundreds of websites, looking for the signal of a threatening outbreak in online noise. By combining technology with boots-on-the-ground natural science, GVFI aims to catch viruses before they become world travelers.
To predict and prevent the next pandemic, the GFFI will rely equally on hunters in Africa and analysts crunching data in California. "Whether it's epidemiology or virology or computer science, we bring all of those to bear to find the best solutions to addressing these problems," Wolfe said.
Previously: Video: How a virus changes the world and “Contagion” spreads across the nation on Friday. Will Hollywood get the science right?
Photo of Wolfe and a hunter in Cameroon by Jonathan Torgovnik