Headline July 20, 2014



The hardwood trees in southern Cameroon are some of the most valuable in Central Africa, their branches towering above 15 m, but Junior's eyes are on the jungle floor.

He's a hunter, and his target is bush meat : wild forest animals like porcupines, the cat-size antelopes called  dik-diks , perhaps even monkeys. One would be enough to feed his family for a couple of days-

Or he could sell it to truckers passing along the new, Chinese-made logging roads that cut through this once untouched part of the forest. When Junior arrives at one of his traps after hours of walking, though-

He kneels to find that the wire snare has snapped but is empty. Something living has already come and gone.

Nathan Wolfe leans over Junior and examines the spent trap. A 41-year old with close-cropped black hair and sleepy Buddha eyes, Wolfe is a hunter in this forest as well, though one of a different sort.

He stalks viruses  -new ones- and the Cameroonian forest is one of the best places in the world.

As the founder and head of Global Viral Forecasting  (GVF), Wolfe has set up projects in Africa, South-east Asia and Southern China-  all but spots where human and wild animals  intermingle  and new viruses can leap from one species to another.

Wolf's big idea is a simple as it is ambitious. Pandemics and outbreaks of new infectious diseases usually begin when a novel microbe in an animal mutates and passes to human being who lacks immunity to it.

HIV, SARS, swine flu   -they all begin in animals. But instead of waiting for viruses to appear in humans,  Wolfe is going on the offensive, using humans like Junior to gather blood from animals that Wolfe and his colleagues can screen for unknown pathogens.

''This is the sort of place where people can have contact with animals and their viruses and spark a real pandemic," he says. "It all comes together here."

This is a revolution in epidemiology  -working to predict and prevent rather than simply respond to pandemics.

The world is more vulnerable to infectious new pathogens than ever. For one thing,  there are simply more of us   -7 billion, to be exact,  often packed into dense cities, where an aggressive disease could spread fast.

We're also more connected; thanks to air travel, there's barely spot on this planet, including the deep forests of Cameroon, that isn't within 24 hours of major city.

A new disease that could have burned out in a rural village years ago now stands a better chance of finding fresh victims.

Meanwhile, as we clear cut-forests and expand into what was once wilderness, we expose ourselves to a new animals microbes.

The panic, chaos and death in the recent film  Contagion for which he  -served as a technical adviser   -aren't exaggerations. "We are at a greater risk because of our interconnectedness," says Dr Donald Burke, dean of the graduate school of public health at the University of Pittsburgh and one of Wolfe's mentors.

''That's why we need to get better at figuring out where these things start.'' "If we fail,  Hollywood's take on the problem could turn out to be a potent of what we'll all experience."

Wolf is not alone in trying to prevent that from happening. The experience of SARS   -which in 2003 moved from bats to civets before infecting humans  -and the threat of avian flu sent jolts though the public health field.

The World Health Organization and the  U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  have upped surveillance for new diseases, while the U.S. Agency for International Development, which disburses foreign assistance, has launched an innovative program to help beef up infectious disease-surveillance.

And groups like Wolfe's GVF are bringing the concepts of intelligence gathering to epidemiology, sifting through viral charter to detect what new biothreat might be brewing.

"Virus hunters like Nathan are our first line of protection," says Dr Larry Brilliant, the president of the  Skoll Global Threats Fund and an infectious disease veteran, "He can make a huge difference."

You think you know the story of  HIV. Aids first appeared in the U.S. in 1981, and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was identified in 1983. In just a few decades, HIV has become a global killer, on par with smallpox and bubonic plague, with millions infected each year. Though antiviral drugs have reduced the toll, there is no vaccine.

Wolfe tells a different tale: HIV was active amongst people in Central Africa for decades before it spread to the rest of the world, aided by air travel, changing sexual mores and the mass distribution of cheap syringes.

The best guess is that the virus jumped from primates to humans more than a century ago, when some unlucky hunters killed and butchered a chimp infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the primates version of HIV.

But it goes back even farther. SIV has long been common in many African monkeys, in which appears to do little harm. When viruses remain in one population for along time, they can attenuate and lose their virulence  -but viruses that jump to new species are often extremely deadly because the new host's immune system has no means of defence.

Wolfe imagines a possible Patient Zero Chimpanzee millions of years ago that might have acquired different SIV strains while hunting monkeys in Central Africa. "If you look at the chimp virus that led to HIV, it's a mix of two monkey viruses," says Wolfe.   

There are two lessons for Wolfe's work. One is that while human beings to think our species is special,  to microbes there's not much difference between a  Pan troglodytes, or common chimp, and a Homo sapiens.

To viruses, we all look the same  -which is one reason nearly  20%  of all major infectious diseases in human began in primates, even though primates make up just  0.5%  of all vertebrate species. Another point is that viruses make that leap between species when:

Bodily fluids are shared  -as tends to happen when one animal hunts, kills and eats another. Hunting and butchering, writes Wolfe in his new book. The Viral Storm,  "provide superhighways connecting a hunting species directly with the microbes in every tissue of their prey".

In the most basic and ambitious sense, Wolfe's goal is to prevent the next HIV.

In 1998, Wolfe, who has a  Ph.D. in immunology from Harvard University, published a paper that raised the possible links between the hunting of wild animals and the spread of emerging infectious diseases.

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