The Virus Hunter

HIV, Ebola and the vast majority of other killer diseases have passed from animals to humans. Nathan Wolfe is searching for the next AIDS before it makes the leap–and is revolutionizing the way the world tries to control diseases in the process.

Virus hunter Nathan Wolfe, director of the Global Virus Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), and GVFI ecology coordinator Matthew LeBreton discuss field work with villagers in Cameroon. Wolfe is a virologist and epidemiologist who supervises research into the ecology of wildlife and other animal diseases. (Cameroon village names: Ngoila, Messok, Mesock, Zoulabot) (Tom Clynes)

Virus hunter Nathan Wolfe, director of the Global Virus Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), and GVFI ecology coordinator Matthew LeBreton discuss field work in Cameroon. Click photo above for slide show.

It’s nearly midday when Brice Bidja steps out of the tangled forest surrounding the African village of Messok in southeastern Cameroon, gripping a Russian 12-gauge shotgun in one hand and the limp body of a mustached monkey in the other. Bidja usually returns alone after his hunts, but on this morning a handful of foreigners tags along with him as he approaches his mud-brick hut. Among the researchers, logisticians, and documentarians is American virologist Nathan Wolfe.

Wolfe stands just outside as the others duck through the low doorway; inside, the glare of the tropical sun gives way to an easy reddish glow of firelight on the faces of Bidja’s wife Sandrine and their two small children. Bidja sets the monkey down on a palm frond and pulls out a sheet of filter paper provided by Wolfe’s organization, the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI). Sandrine crouches and picks up a machete, then slices off one of the animal’s front legs and holds it over the paper, aiming the dripping blood at five printed circles. Once the targets are saturated, the hunter tucks the blood sample into a ziplock bag filled with silica gel packets and hands the bag to one of Wolfe’s colleagues. The group will run tests later to see if the animal that Bidja and his family would soon devour is infected with a particularly nasty virus that could jump to humans, ultimately becoming the next deadly pandemic.

Sandrine thrusts the monkey’s leg into the flames, perfuming the hut with burnt hair and skin. She sets it aside and continues the butchery as the foreigners come in closer with their cameras and notepads, documenting the blade’s passage through legs and tail and neck. At the doorway, Bidja chats with Wolfe, their simple French mixing with the sounds of splitting bones and separating tendons. Sandrine begins to open the monkey’s rib cage with sharp hacks of her machete, each of which unleashes a fine spray of blood. It’s too much for one of the visitors, who darts outside and makes a panicked reach into her backpack, pulling out a bottle of antibiotic gel.

“Oh, good, you brought hand sanitizer,” Wolfe says, exaggerating a stifled smirk. “That’ll protect you, don’t worry.”

Meanwhile, Sandrine uses a smaller knife to finish readying every part of the monkey, except the entrails, for her family’s use. Seeing the children growing restless, she reaches into the animal’s chest cavity and cuts out its heart and liver. She tosses the floppy organs to the kids, who roll them in their hands like Silly Putty, showing them proudly to Wolfe.

Solidly built, with curly hair and plump, whiskered cheeks, Wolfe, 38, is at the muddy-boots vanguard of an ambitious movement that seeks to shift the way the world approaches disease control, from containing outbreaks to launching preemptive strikes against emerging viruses. “If we look at AIDS or smallpox or Ebola, or any of the really bad shit that has emerged over the past century,” says Wolfe, “the vast majority of these pathogens has passed from animals to us. What we’re trying to do now is get upstream, way upstream, and catch the next HIV before it can explode into a killer pandemic.”

To do that, Wolfe has spent much of the past decade running alongside hunters like Bidja, collecting blood from them and their prey. That he chose the wilderness of southeastern Cameroon — one of the most challenging environments on Earth — is no accident. It was here, scientists now believe, that a chimp virus that would mutate into HIV made its first foray into the blood of a hunter like Brice Bidja. From its unwitting first host it would fan out around the world with a deadly, methodical efficiency, infecting more than 60 million people.

Now Wolfe is taking his “viral surveillance” project on the road, fueled by a burst of grants that will allow him to set up shop in other tropical hot spots that have histories of spawning deadly viruses, including cholera, bird flu, and SARS. Eventually he aims to create a worldwide infrastructure to supply researchers with a steady stream of blood from “sentinel populations,” such as bush-meat hunters in Africa, poultry farmers in southeast Asia, or vendors in the Chinese “wet markets” where live animals are bought and sold for food.

Explore more of the story through the image slideshow