Writing for Men’s Journal, Tom Clynes followed Nathan Wolfe — the virological and epidemiological equivalent of a rock star — to remote regions of Cameroon (PDF), one of the raw frontiers in the transmission of disease between animals and humans and the place where some scientists believe HIV may have made its way to humans more than a century ago.
Supported by generous grant funding from heavyweights like Google.org and the United States Department of Defense, Wolfe travels the world visiting places — from East Asian poultry and wild animal markets to bush meat hunters in central African rain forests — known as hotbeds of animal-to-human disease transmission. Clynes’ sometimes-graphic account follows Wolfe, head of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, as he visits African subsistence hunters to take blood samples and to educate them about safe hunting practices.
Clynes writes that Wolfe has pioneered a new, immersive model of disease detection that gives him a fighting chance of detecting the next big human pandemic before it gets out of control.
GVFI’s method flies in the face of the “parachute science” approach that has long typified data collection in the Third World. Wolfe thinks he’s got the system down, and he believes that, with the right collaborators, his model can be scaled up and repeated anywhere in the world.
Working like this, one village at a time, Wolfe has quickly accumulated one of the most comprehensive blood collections on Earth, some 25,000 human and 16,000 animal samples that are available to researchers around the globe. “I can guarantee that these repositories of samples will be treasure troves of information for the future,” says Michael Worobey, of the University of Arizona.
The global health community believes the dangers Wolfe and his team and others in the field are working to detect are very real, lending an urgency to GVFI’s work.
The SARS outbreak killed more than 700, but it could have been far worse. A massive international containment effort, led by the WHO, averted a doomsday scenario and quickly controlled the outbreak. What worries people like Dr. Michael Ryan, coordinator of the WHO’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, is that SARS may have been just a rehearsal for something worse. “We winged it with SARS,” says Ryan, “and we got away with it, because the core countries had the capacity to deal with it. But if SARS had happened in rural Africa we’d still be dealing with it. And I think it’s inevitable that we’ll be hit with something new that will be harder to put back in its box.”