The Wall Street Journal What scares the virologist Nathan Wolfe?
Having spent years living in Africa, at times trekking through the forest to work with hunters exposed to animal diseases, he’s not particularly squeamish about being near dangerous viruses. “Most people who go into my business aren’t germaphobes,” he says with a laugh. Sitting at home in his colorful San Francisco living room, what most worries him are “the things that haven’t appeared yet,” he says. “If there was something that kept me up at night, it likely would be an agent that had the capacity to spread, with the symptoms only coming sometime later.”
Dr. Wolfe, 44, has also been preoccupied recently with the Ebola crisis in West Africa and fears over new influenza viruses. As a visiting biology professor at Stanford University and the founder of Global Viral, a research institute, and Metabiota, a forecasting company, he has spent much of his career coming up with ways to combat pandemics. (Metabiota sells disease-surveillance systems, epidemic data and analytics to government agencies and companies.)
The probability that a disease can jump from animals to humans and then become a large-scale epidemic has increased as the world’s population has grown and become more mobile, says Dr. Wolfe (who is no relation to this writer). Picking up viruses from animals is a primary way that new epidemics originate. “We’ve moved further into forests, and we have more contact with some of these animals, and simultaneously, we’ve surrounded ourselves with much more intensive livestock production,” he says. “We’ve kind of wrapped this planet in a layer of biomass…of human tissue and domestic-animal tissue that fundamentally alters the properties of how these bugs emerge” and propagate themselves.
At the same time, he says, we’ve grown better at fighting disease thanks to improved technology. Now it’s become a “race” to see which can outpace the other, viruses or technology, says Dr. Wolfe. “Will our capacity to understand these agents and to monitor them early win out over the trend toward increased probability of these epidemic events that we’ve seen?” he asks.
Dr. Wolfe isn’t waiting around for the answer. On behalf of government organizations such as the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and in partnership with nonprofits and universities, his company is helping develop advanced monitoring tools that track the movement of pathogens and microbes.
Most surveillance for new diseases today involves monitoring people’s symptoms. But some viruses, such as HIV, show only generic symptoms at first, making it difficult to detect them. Metabiota is now using and developing tools for analyzing potential threats based on patterns of disease outbreaks in humans and animals, among other sources.
Part of Dr. Wolfe’s work has been to discover new viruses. Birds are one reservoir for new diseases: For reasons that aren’t fully understood, many new influenza viruses come from wild birds in East Asia, he says. They mingle with domestic-poultry populations, spreading the virus.
Rather than using microscopes to study viruses, scientists today can rely more on sequencing their genetic information, a method that has made identifying new strains much easier. The discoveries of Dr. Wolfe and his colleagues include the Bas-Congo virus (a deadly pathogen related to rabies) and HTLV-3 and HTLV-4 (viruses in the same family as HIV that originated in primates).
He and his colleagues are also working to pinpoint where in the world new viruses are likely to take hold. They use a number of data points to determine potential hot spots, including information on where pathogens have emerged before and where different animals live. They also look at how close wildlife is to major population centers and how easily viruses might spread when people travel by road or air.
Born outside of Detroit, Dr. Wolfe grew up more interested in evolution than epidemics. He studied biology at Stanford University as an undergraduate and got his master’s degree in biological anthropology at Harvard University.
After studying wild chimpanzees in Uganda as a graduate student, he started thinking about the microorganisms living within the creatures. At the time, scientists were starting to look for the origins of HIV in primates. “The origin of HIV was the kind of discovery that studying viruses permitted,” says Dr. Wolfe, and that challenge drew him to the field.
He went on to earn a doctorate at Harvard in immunology and infectious disease. “I really started to understand the world of microbes, which is a very compelling subject if you’re interested in evolution or biology or ecology—or really in life, because our planet is so dominated by this form of life,” he says.
As a postdoctoral fellow and then an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, he returned to Africa, where he spent some of his time trekking into the jungles to learn about the practices of local hunters. Epidemiologist Donald Burke, his colleague, suspected that people who hunted African bushmeat may have picked up HIV through contact with the animals. In 2004, Dr. Wolfe and his colleagues found evidence to support that theory: They discovered that 1% of bushmeat hunters were infected with simian foamy virus, which belongs to the same family as HIV but hasn’t yet been found to cause illness.
In 2006, Dr. Wolfe became a professor in the epidemiology department at the University of California, Los Angeles, and started looking at further ways to predict and prevent new epidemics. He conducted research projects in Africa and Southeast Asia; in China, he worked with scientists to investigate “wet markets,” where live animals are sold, as sources of viral transmission.
Dr. Wolfe assigns paramount importance to stopping the current Ebola outbreak. In the larger scheme of things, however, he thinks that the lesson of the current crisis (as with HIV, SARS and influenza) is that new viruses will continue to cross over from animals and “to blindside us until we have systematic approaches to catching them early and stopping them before they spread.” As the father of a newborn boy, taking a long-term view is something that he often thinks about. “I could worry about what’s happening over a couple-year period, and obviously we need to do that,” he says. “But when I think about my kid in his 40s or 50s, when he looks back at this period, it won’t be seen as a single event. It’ll be seen as multiple agents and multiple times.”
He sees it as an unfortunate certainty. “The real perspective here is that these are not ‘Black Swan’ events or one-off things that are fundamentally unpredictable,” he says. “These are known patterns.”