Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Virus Hunter

Nathan Wolfe is The Virus Hunter. Sounds like a movie title, doesn't it?

Wolfe is on the front lines of tracking virus cross-overs from animals to humans. HIV, Ebola, Bird Flu, West Nile, SARS, and Yellow Fever, are examples of viruses that have made that cross-over, much to the grief of humans.

This cross-species transmission is not rare - it's happening all the time. And we're not very good at stopping pandemics once they've started. So Wolfe and the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative are building a global network to monitor that transfer of viruses from animals to humans. This shold warn us of possible diseases before they actually start hitting humans.

In the past, we didn't have such an early warning. HIV first crossed to humans in 1929; it took decades to start attacking the pandemic, and still with limited success. With ever-increasing global interaction and ability for viruses to travel, we can't wait that long to start working on the next big virus if we want to prevent future pandemics.

Developing an early warning system takes Wolfe to the viral hot spots where humans are highly exposed to animals. He started a decade ago by visiting hunters in Cameroon who kill bush meat; other hot spots include Chinese wet-market workers and butchers, wildlife sanctuary employees, and Malaysian bat hunters.

Wolfe is a professor at UCLA. His work and the work of the GVFI are supported by Google and Jeff Skoll. In a past TED, we heard TED Prize winner Larry Brilliant (now head of the Google Foundation) wish for an early warning system of emerging pandemics. He praised the work of the Canadian Health and Welfare unit that had been monitoring mentions of unusual outbreaks of disease on the Internet to identify such emerging outbreaks - they had noticed emergence of SARS long before official channels. Wolfe's work takes this warning back much earlier, before humans start to get sick.

Wolfe also charged us all of suffering from 'surface parochialism'. We restrict our thinking to life at the surface of the earth. However, it's possible that life started deep in the depths of earth, and perhaps there is another kind of life, which doesn't share a DNA foundation. When we send up a Mars probe, should we be asking if there is life in Mars instead of on Mars.

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