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.

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Dangerous Medicine

With each outbreak of the world’s most fearsome disease, an ad hoc team of doctors and researchers risk their own lives by heading straight for ground zero. Tom Clynes joins them at the epicenter as they battle to contain the virus–and trek into the forest in search of its secrets.

Photo by Seamus Murphy

When the old Czech prop-plane lurches to a halt at the side of the military airstrip, the six doctors unfurl their stiff legs, disembark, and begin unloading. They shift 47 boxes—a metric ton of laboratory gear—onto a truck and drive toward town, trailing a spiral of orange dust as they pass army checkpoints and outsized churches, roadside vendors and crowds of people listening to radios, talking, and singing.

The most surprising thing is how ordinary it all looks, at first. Set in the middle of a fertile, if unrelieved, savanna, Gulu could be any other East African provincial center. Everywhere, people are on the move, some pedaling bikes, others riding on the fringed rear seats of bicycle taxis, most just walking. They walk upright, with stone-straight posture, some carrying babies on their backs, some balancing loads on their heads, some bare-footed, others in sandals. They walk—and the doctors drive—past the field where the Pope once spoke, from atop two shipping containers still piled one atop the other; past the turnoff that leads to the witch doctor’s house; past another road that leads to a small village near the forest—the forest where, perhaps, it all started.

It takes a few minutes, as if the doctors’ eyes were getting used to a new light, before hints begin to emerge that life here is far from normal. There are none of the usual swarms of children in school uniforms. White trucks drive through town, emblazoned with the red crosses and acronyms—UN, WHO, MSF—that portend crisis. The hospital building, where the doctors pull up, is wrapped in white plastic sheeting. At the door, a hand-lettered sign warns “No entrance without permission.” The sign is illustrated with a crude human figure, with an X drawn over it.

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Dr. Anthony Sanchez got the news on a Sunday afternoon in mid-October when he stopped by his lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. Sanchez was surprised to find his boss, Pierre Rollin, in the office. Rollin told him that Ebola, after a four-year respite, had resurfaced in northern Uganda.

“Feel free to say no, Tony,” Rollin said. “But I’m putting together a team to go over and set up a lab; we could use you.”

Sanchez had a four-month-old daughter at home, his first. But the agency was already spread thin, with a team in Saudi Arabia covering a Rift Valley fever epidemic. An on-site laboratory could give the Ebola containment operation a tremendous advantage.

Sanchez, a low-key Texan, had spent much of his career researching the virus, often in the CDC’s maximum-containment lab, protected by a space suit. But he had never seen it operate in a human epidemic. Once, a few years ago, he had wondered if he had missed his chance, if the disease would ever come again.

Sanchez walked to his office and picked up the phone. He dialed his home number and told his wife that there was something he needed to talk about when he got home, something important. The line was silent for several long seconds, and then:

“I’m not going to be happy about this, am I?”

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Five weeks into the crisis, a crowd of foreigners occupies a government office room in a yellow concrete-block building on the north side of Gulu. Doctors and scientists hunch over notebook computers and talk into walkie-talkies. Through the babble of languages and accents, an American voice speaks into a satellite telephone: “We’ve got more positives in Pabo now—we’ve got to get on top of this.”

After she hangs up the phone, I walk over and introduce myself to Cathy Roth, a World Health Organization physician who is, at the moment, coordinating the operation. When I extend my hand, she throws both of her hands over her head in a “don’t shoot!” gesture.

“Uh, we’re not actually doing that anymore,” Roth says, smiling down at my retreating hand. Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids, including sweat. And although it’s unlikely that either of us would be carrying the virus, people are avoiding handshakes like . . . well, like the plague.

A dozen or so exhausted-looking professionals trudge into the room for Roth’s afternoon update meeting. “Everyone’s getting really tired now,” she says. “We were thinking we had it under control, and I was thinking about giving the mobile teams a Sunday off. After five weeks of 24-7, they’re making mistakes, and they need rest.” But now Roth is worried that the illness is flaring up again, threatening to break through the containment operation.

In the past, Ebola had struck only rural areas, and the disease’s rapid death sequence had actually worked in favor of containment, since infected people couldn’t travel far before they toppled over. But the Gulu area is densely populated, with transport links to East Africa’s major cities—and, from there, to anywhere in the world. No one knows what might happen if the virus were given the chance to take advantage of these more favorable conditions.

CDC epidemiologist Scott Harper begins the meeting with bad news from Pabo, a refugee camp north of Gulu…

The complete story appears in the anthology “The New Age of Adventure: Ten Years of Great Writing”