Hunting for the deadliest prey in the jungle: viruses

We are on the brink of a new pandemic age, warns the Indiana Jones of pathogens. And what he finds in the wilderness could destroy our cities, he tells Mark Piesing.

For many, the dimly remembered panics over the bird-flu, swine-flu and Sars pandemics may now seem like a case of the authorities crying wolf, or even a conspiracy to boost the profits of Big Pharma. But to "virus hunter" Professor Nathan Wolfe, these viruses, which had all crossed over from wild animals, were merely the first gusts of a viral storm blowing out of the jungle and heading straight towards us.

Last year, Professor Wolfe's work led to the creation of an embryonic early-warning network of "viral listening posts" across Africa and Asia. The network earned his not-for-profit Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (now renamed Global Viral) the label of the "CIA of the viral world" and its founder a place in Time magazine's top 100 most influential people of 2011.

His for-profit Global Viral Forecasting Inc has been renamed Metabiota. This year, his latest book, The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, which was pubished last October, has been longlisted for the Royal Society's Winton Prize, won previously by the likes of Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) and Stephen Hawking.

"Up to now, we have been bullet dodging, but right now lurking in the jungle are viruses that, if they crossed over, have the capability to kill hundreds of millions of us," Professor Wolfe says. "And in a world where for the first time in history we can travel from the heart of the jungle to downtown London in little more than 24 hours there is an ever-increasing risk our luck is going to run out.

"After all, despite all the efforts of the public health authorities, swine flu still infected 10 per cent of the world's population, and if it had been a little more deadly it could have easily killed millions."

However, for Professor Wolfe there is also hope as, along with "the wonderful precedent of earlier efforts of the campaign to eliminate smallpox", we now have "a whole load of tools that mean for the first time we can do something to prevent one of these hugely costly pandemics".

Ultimately, he can imagine the possibility of a single global viral control room. Imagine Dr Strangelove's war room, but with the enemy being swarming viruses. Professor Wolfe was first made aware of the danger posed by the viral reservoirs carried around by wild animals – particularly in the jungle hotspots of Africa and Asia – as a field researcher in Cameroon and Uganda, where he witnessed the devastation wrought by Aids.

His own research on the many variations of the HIV virus in the villages he was monitoring showed just how big the viral reservoir was.

He believes that, while humans and this viral reservoir have always been connected "through the catching and butchering of wild game", the further we have moved away from our origins as hunter-gatherers the more vulnerable we have become to viruses that we would once as a species have had immunity to.

So the "accelerating interconnectivity of the modern world" has helped to create the potential for a viral storm because any virus that crosses over and which would have burnt out in a small population (victims either dying or developing immunity) "now has, in a world of six billion people, the potential to spread and spread, as people are the fuel of viruses".

It occurred to Professor Wolfe (and to others such as Dr Larry Brilliant, the president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, as well) that improving scientific knowledge plus technological advances meant that for the first time humanity could start "imaging a kind of global immune system" that would be able to predict and then prevent viral outbreaks by "harnessing the power of data".

By aggregating together information gathered from jungle hunters reporting strange deaths of wild animals that might warn of a new dangerous viral mutation, with data from "global organisations whose sickness records of their global workforce could pick up the first signs of a spreading virus", and even by "looking at what people are posting via their smartphones," it should be possible to predict an outbreak and then monitor howfast it is spreading.

Professor Wolfe, though, is concerned that "understandable fears over privacy" will hinder the "good use" of personal data.

However, Professor Hugh Pennington takes a "measured, if critical, view" of Professor Wolfe's ideas. He is emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen and an adviser to the UK Government and the World Food Organisation.

"It is debatable whether we are entering into a new era of a viral storm as ever since the beginning of recorded history there have been pandemics, and with more and more people living in cities, if something is going to happen it is more likely to happen there."

Even a hundred years ago "the 1918 flu spread at the speed of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and even though 30mph doesn't seem very fast now it still meant that the virus could travel several hundreds of miles a day."

He believes that future pandemics "may be caused by a traditional nasty like cholera, which still is killing millions around the world, rather than Ebola". And we know how to defeat such nasties.

Professor Pennington argues that the security environment that now exists at airports means that increased air travel in fact "gives us greater control over the spread of infection than ever before". So his gut instinct is that future pandemics will be "more like Sars than a replay of 1918" in scale.

But he concedes that "evolution is unpredictable" and when you are dealing with viruses "anything can happen". No one saw coming the deadly outbreak of a new strain of E.coli in Germany in 2011 that killed 53 people.

World-renowned virologist Professor Robert G Webster disagrees with such optimism, believing that "the number of pandemics may possibly increase as the world population grows", as does the ease by which they can travel round the world.

Professor Webster is a professor of infectious diseases at St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and the scientist credited with first seeing the link between human and avian flu.

He also believes that other "completely novel viruses" will cross over from the "wild reservoir", even if this may take some time to occur. Bird flu first crossed over from the bird population to humans almost certainly before the mid-1990s.

"But if we keep creating huge chicken, turkey and pig farms, which are nurseries of viruses, then such an increase will grow inevitable."

For Professor Webster, while "there are already centres for disease control which serve as risk-assessment centres trying to predict, for example, which of the hundreds of thousands of influenza viruses out there in nature could pose a threat, it is a case of 'Will the viruses that matter please stand up'".

There remains a great deal of work to do, he adds, because, "We are now only scratching the sciences of the genomics of influenza" to understand what drives the evolution of these viruses. "We need to know the secrets of these viruses in advance so we can understand the opposition, the enemy."

In the end, Professor Webster says, despite the pessimism he shares with Professor Wolfe over the likelihood of a pandemic, "I have to be an optimist about our ability to predict and prevent a pandemic because it is what we are about – and all our preparation paid off in the 2009 [swine flu] pandemic."

For Professor Pennington, what makes him more optimistic about our ability to prevent future pandemics is the internet.

"We can now transmit data around the world instantaneously in order to identify viruses and work out how to beat them. So the E.coli from Germany genome was sequenced in China in three days rather than 10 years." And this is only going to get faster. Similarly for Professor Wolfe, while he says he is almost certain that our luck will run out this century, he is an optimist who believes that technology will give the authorities an ever-increasing resilience to future pandemics, including the use of good viruses to take out bad ones.

With bird flu on a new killing spree in Indonesia, we have to hope he is right.

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