Nathan Wolfe and the reinvention of virus discovery

Nathan Wolfe: The jungle search for viruses // on TED

Up until now, discovering new viruses was limited to recognizing the symptoms caused by their infections in humans and other animals. Dr. Nathan Wolfe and his team of researchers have reinvented the process of hunting down new, unknown, deadly viruses before they spillover to other animal hosts, including humans. Along with the native hunters, these scientists walk through the deep jungles of central Africa (home to the majority of emerging viruses and reservoir animals), collecting blood samples from primates, snakes, rodents (bush meat for the natives) in order to identify the unknown pathogens.

According to recent statistics, about 75% of the newly emerging diseases are zoonotic (i.e., of animal origin), out of which are a majority of human viruses like Rabies, SARS, Ebola, HIV, Influenza. This calls for a review of our previous and current system of identification and prevention of new pathogens. This process requires collaborators to head to the source, undertake the legwork, and prep the region locals by educating them about the risks and dangers involved in their day-to-day encounters with deadly viruses.

I was introduced to Nathan Wolfe’s work in my Virology class last semester and his TED talk remains to be one of the most inspiring (and one of my favorite) talks. It struck a chord in the sense that it made me realize that biological science research isn’t limited to working in the laboratory, and sometimes involves getting out there in the field to change the course of actions.  In Dr. Wolfe’s words, “We may have charted all the continents on the planet, and we may have discovered all the mammals, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left to explore on Earth.

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