October 21, 2011 10:25 pm

The virus hunter

Scientist Nathan Wolfe discusses the risks of tracking down deadly microbes, research and his role as a consultant on the film ‘Contagion’

Nathan Wolfe’s path to becoming one of the world’s foremost virus hunters began with a bowl of roadkill stew. When Wolfe was a graduate student studying wild apes in Africa at Harvard in the early 1990s, he had a meeting with one of his revered professors, Irv DeVore. DeVore told Wolfe a story of driving home one evening while summering in Martha’s Vineyard, the well-travelled vacation island off the southern coast of Massachusetts, and finding a dead rabbit in the road. An avid hunter and studier of hunters around the world, DeVore picked up the rabbit, brought it home, skinned it and cooked it for dinner.

Within a few days, DeVore was frighteningly ill from a wild rabbit bacteria, tularemia, which he had likely released and inhaled during the butchering process. He went to the emergency room and was saved from multiple organ failure.

“By the time Irv finished his story, my mind was racing with the possibilities,” Wolfe says.

Since then, Wolfe has devoted his career to studying the transmission of microbes from animals to humans, tracking the bacteria, parasites and viruses that plague hunters in Africa before they wind their way to the broader global population. HIV was believed to have first jumped from a chimpanzee to a human who hunted and ate it, almost 100 years before it became a global human pandemic. Wolfe is on the lookout for the next HIV or the next Sars, before it can become the next HIV or Sars.

For 15 years Wolfe did this from his academic posts at Harvard, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California at Los Angeles. But the bureaucracy could not keep pace with the microbes. “Universities may not be the right places to do a big, complicated international project,” he says. “We needed to be nimble, we needed to be very international, and we needed to be open to using any kind of tools, including those outside a particular discipline.”

In 2008, he ditched full-time academia to start his own organisation, the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative. Wolfe continues to monitor novel infectious agents but from within a global network of frontline agencies, including the World Health Organisation and the Red Cross. Together, they form an early warning system for the sort of pandemics portrayed in the new film Contagion, on which Wolfe served as a consultant.

Nathan Wolfe at work with hunters in Nayabissam, Cameroon

Nathan Wolfe at work with hunters in Nayabissam, Cameroon in order to trace pathogens

Wolfe’s day job resembles that of a detective on the trail of prolific serial killers. From rabies to malaria to Ebola to HIV, he traces the microbe’s modus operandi, locates its hideout, and profiles its victims through various wretched stages of fever and convulsions and skin lesions. His subjects may range from a 13-year-old boy in Tennessee to thousands of frogs in Central America.

A lot of Wolfe’s work is also that of a beat cop on patrol, tediously collecting blood samples from African bushmen and their prey. His organisation currently has thousands of samples, which his team must slog through in an attempt to catch the next killer before it strikes, and certainly before it becomes the next HIV or H1N1, the pandemic widely referred to as swine flu.

“We totally dodged a bullet,” he says of H1N1. “The fact that it wasn’t devastating was not because we had a successful response to it.”

Wolfe’s speech begins to pick up pace. “It’s like when you have a massive hurricane bearing down on a major population centre and really, you get a lucky break, and the thing breaks off course and dissolves at sea.”

Now Wolfe is worked up. He leans forward in his swivel chair in his small San Francisco office, where mathematical formulae cover the walls and windows and artefacts from his various trips to Africa and Asia sit on his desk. He launches into one of his soapbox spiels, speaking in a flurry of run-on sentences and fragments. This time the subject is “risk literacy” and “risk fatigue” and how the public’s perception of H1N1 as insignificant or over-hyped was misguided. He references his new book, The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, where he cites the number of people who died as a result of terrorism between April 2001 and August 2002, a period that included the September 11, 2001 attacks: 8,000. Compare that, he says, with the number of people who died in the same length of time starting in April 2009 from H1N1: 18,000. Nearly 10 per cent of the world’s population was infected.

With such easy transmission, had the virus been even slightly more deadly, the impact would have been even more profound, he says. Wolfe calls the trillions of dollars spent to prevent terrorism “wildly disproportionate to actual risks” when put in the context of viral threats. “It’s a silent risk,” he says, “compared to earthquakes and hurricanes and volcanoes.”

Wolfe’s fascination with microbes and the primates who carry them dates back to when he was a child, watching National Geographic specials on television about apes. He would cavort around the house on all fours, abandoning English communication in an attempt to imitate them.

From the monkey house at the zoo to the lab at Harvard, Wolfe, now 41, has always been passionate about learning new things. “I love that feeling of discovering something new about the world,” he says. Trying to relieve the human race of its disease burden is a bonus for Wolfe, rather than his main drive, though doing good is “a part of my DNA,” he says. “I grew up in a family where I was the only one who didn’t get a Masters in social work,” he says. “The sense of doing something that was beneficial for humanity was just baked in pretty early. Of course, how wonderful is it to be able to find new things and discover new things in a way that has the potential to be useful?”

A scene from the thriller 'Contagion'

The pandemic damage unfolds in a scene from the thriller 'Contagion'

More than anything, Wolfe is an intellectual and a problem solver. His casual grey-wash jeans and two-day-old beard should not fool anyone into believing Wolfe is laid back. He is always busy, always thinking and gets impatient if conversation dwells for too long on one topic.

“He has the mind of the academic and the spirit of an explorer,” says Sally Osberg, chief executive of the Skoll Foundation, one of Wolfe’s original investors at Global Viral Forecasting. “There are people you meet who are ambitious, and then there are people who are ambitious for all the right reasons. That’s Nathan,” she says. “He wants to show up in the right research journals, he may want to win a Nobel prize someday – and it’s for a specific reason. He wants to stop the next pandemic in its tracks.”

Wolfe chose to headquarter his organisation in San Francisco, near Silicon Valley, in the hope the animal scientists and data scientists will join together in a 21st-century pandemic response team. He envisions an office of the future, functionally chaotic, filled with young, Facebook-esque engineers in hoodies and sneakers hunched over laptops. Empty Red Bull cans would line computer stations while analysts track streams of data rolling over three different screens at all hours.

The 24-hour global situation room for emerging diseases will be the hub for electronic data collected in medical clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies from around the world. When there is an uptick in hospital admissions in Suriname, or an increase in sales of over-the-counter fever medication in Lagos, Nigeria, this team will know about it. They’ll cross-reference that data with “viral chatter” on the internet: posts on Twitter and search terms on Google, first used as a geographic predictor for flu outbreaks in 2008, when employees noticed increased searches for “drug stores” and “flu symptoms” days before public health departments charted an outbreak.

Meanwhile, their colleagues, stationed on the ground in Africa, will be activated to collect lab specimens and upload genetic data into the global computer system, where algorithms and bioinformatic engineers will determine if a new virus has surfaced, so a plan to counteract and stop it can be developed and implemented immediately.

This utopic “global immune system” does not exist yet. There is not enough data and the data there is is not co-ordinated and doesn’t move fast enough. But early versions of this network do exist, and Wolfe’s organisation is a part of it.

“This is not science fiction,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we had something like that in the next five to 10 years.”

Gwyneth Paltrow in the thriller, 'Contagion'

Gwyneth Paltrow's character unwittingly passes on a deadly virus

Gwyneth Paltrow cups a pair of dice in her hands and blows good luck on them before she tosses them down the craps table at a Hong Kong casino, in a key scene from the new film Contagion. She flirts with some Chinese businessmen and enjoys a few cocktails.

On her journey home to Minneapolis, she gets a wretched headache and a cough. By the time she lands, she’s hacking her lungs out, dripping with feverish sweat and so weak she can hardly hug her son hello. Within days, she’s dead. Her son is dead. And dozens of people she touched or breathed on are ill and dying – the casino worker who picked up her martini glass, the businessman she shared dice with, the co-worker who gave her a ride from the airport.

The bizarre illness turns into a bona fide pandemic that practically wipes out the populations of Minneapolis, Chicago, and San Francisco. Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation are dispatched to hunt down the origins of the virus, set up makeshift hospices in gymnasiums, develop a vaccine and control the panic and social chaos that ensues.

The screenwriter, Scott Burns – who was a producer for An Inconvenient Truth and a writer for The Bourne Ultimatum – was tasked with creating a screenplay for Contagion that combined the eyebrow-raising public service message of the former with the suspense-thriller appeal of the latter, throwing in the Bourne star, Matt Damon, for good measure.

Burns began his research in Wolfe’s classroom at Stanford University, where Wolfe teaches an annual seminar he calls “viral lifestyles”. He teaches from the perspective of a microbe, hunting for its next human host to lunch on, then making it cough, sneeze or foam at the mouth in order to propagate itself. One of the assignments Wolfe regularly gives his students is to invent a hypothetical virus and chart its path from origin to transmission to the public health response and geo-political implications.

Burns took the assignment and turned it into a veritable murder mystery, with the help of an Oscar-winning director, Steven Soderbergh, and an all-star cast, including Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Paltrow and Damon. Between Wolfe’s tutelage and that of Burns’s other academic advisers, Wolfe jokes that by the time the film hit the screen, the writer had earned an equivalent to a Masters degree in epidemiology.

The virus Burns profiles in Contagion is based on a real virus Wolfe has studied – the Nipah virus, which originated in Malaysian fruit bats. The fictional virus takes its own winding, nefarious path into humans with dramatic consequences for the world population.

The role Wolfe and his team play in the real-life version of the pandemic in Contagion was actually given very little on-screen time in the film. He is yet to see Brad Pitt or Matt Damon cast as Nathan Wolfe, virus hunter. “The work we do is the prequel” to Contagion, he says, conducted before a virus spreads, before scientists are struggling to develop a vaccine, before riots break out in drug stores over vaccine shortages.

“If we do our job successfully,” he says, “you won’t be seeing that scenario.”

While Contagion viewers think they are being passively entertained, they are inevitably absorbing a few lessons on virology. This kind of public education via mainstream fictional media, Wolfe says, is the next-generation solution to addressing pandemics. “One of the things I loved about the movie is that you can’t leave without understanding what R0 is,” says Wolfe.

The concept of R0, pronounced “R-naught,” is the average number of new illnesses that can be caused by one infected person. So the number of people Paltrow’s character infected single-handedly, and the number each of them directly infected, is averaged into one number. The higher the number, the faster the spread of the infection. In an average flu season, the R0 for influenza is just under two. In the 1918 influenza pandemic, it was above three, although some analysis puts it lower.

The rapid-fire spread of the virus in Contagion conveys another point Wolfe is always repeating. “We are so fundamentally connected to each other through all these interesting transportation systems and through the way the food supply is organised,” he says.

Today, when people go to the supermarket, the ground beef they buy could contain meat from 50 different cows. And a piece of each of those 50 cows in turn makes it into the hamburger buns of thousands of people. And those thousands of people encounter thousands more on the subway trains, buses and aeroplanes, where an outbreak could wreak havoc on the world.

“From the perspective of microbes, we’re this massive, interesting, interconnected Petri dish,” Wolfe says. On the flip side to those connections are all the communication devices and platforms that have connected societies. The kind that could facilitate Wolfe’s ideal 24-hour situation room.

“We have this hyper-connectivity,” he says. “But we also have other things that grow out of it, like the internet, cell phones, and all these amazing technologies, which potentially help us to counter the effects of that connectivity’s impact on the way these things spread.

“The interesting mystery really, which is not resolved, is what will win out?”

April Dembosky is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

‘The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age’ is published by Allen Lane on October 27, £14.99. ‘Contagion’ is released in UK cinemas this weekend

Science returns next week

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