By Tom Clynes
Author’s note: I often include this story in my keynote presentations. In terms of intrigue, it’s got just about everything: an exotic location, scary diseases and a protagonist whose efforts may very well prevent the next smallpox or Ebola from gaining a foothold in human bloodstreams.
On my journey with Nathan Wolfe and his team into the very jungle that produced the HIV virus, I could see how logging and bush-meat hunting is bringing humans deeper into once-isolated regions that have a history of spawning deadly pandemics. Meanwhile, society has stacked the decks in favor of opportunistic microbes, with our closely packed cities, our changing climate and our growing numbers of elderly.
Like many of the world-changers I’ve met, Wolfe has the conviction and tenacity to follow through in the face of challenges that would turn back most others. This is one of the most logistically challenging environments on earth, but as Wolfe tells his team, “If nothing is going wrong, it means we’re not asking tough enough questions.”
HIV, Ebola, and the vast majority of other killer diseases have passed from animals to humans. Virologist 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.
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 money, 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 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.”
Author, photojournalist and National Geographic photographer speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment and education. His work appears in publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times, Nature, Popular Science and The Atlantic. As a keynote speaker, Tom aims inspires audiences and brings them along “on assignment” to exotic locations around the globe. To contact Tom and find out more about his memorable and inspiring programs, email info[at]tomclynes.com.