“Virus Hunter” studies epidemics, infectious diseases

Through his study of how epidemic diseases stem from human contact with infected animals, Nathan Wolfe is hoping to identify viruses before they become a threat.

A leading mind in epidemiology and virology, Wolfe spoke on last night as part of Butler University’s 2010-11 J. James Woods Lectures in the Science and Mathematics Series.

“Wolfe and his colleagues work to spot viruses as soon as they surface by collecting and cataloguing blood samples, surveying wild animals, scanning urban blood banks and documenting the transfer and distribution of disease,” According to National Geographic.

He explained that viruses such as HIV take years after infection to show sickness, and by the time the disease is  identified, countless others have already been infected.

Wolfe’s goal is to eliminate this period as well as identify and prevent viruses before they infect multiple humans so there is no scramble to prevent further spread of the disease once it is identified.

Wolfe is the founder of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, a research institute that monitors viral outbreaks in Africa and Asia.

He established 17 research sites in Cameroon, and at these sites he identified the ways in which a virus or parasite could jump from an animal to a human.  When villagers hunt, they come in contact with almost every possibly bodily fluid from an animal.

“Every potential microorganism that exists has the potential to enter an individual,” Wolfe said.

At the sites in Cameroon, Wolfe provided filter paper for hunters to drop blood samples from the wild animals for blood tests.  All of the people that Wolfe provided filter paper to were also educated with basic health training so they understood the risk they are at of contracting viruses from animals.

Through his research there, Wolfe was able to identify new microbes, including retroviruses and malaria, collect human and animal samples and document viral jumps.

Wolfe has received over $11 million in funding from Google and the Skoll Foundation and about $40 million from the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Institute of Health, which has helped advance him to the forefront of his field.

His findings could aid in the prevention of pandemics, the development of vaccines and educating those in more remote areas about how to prevent the possibility of animal viruses jumping to humans.

After the success of his research in Cameroon, Wolfe opened about 50 research labs to document what he called “viral chatter” across the globe.

He was able to achieve success at these labs through “funding, hard work and getting out in the field to work,” Wolfe said.

Through identifying specific people who come in contact with both the wild animal population and the human population, he was able to follow their health over time and identify viral jumps.

“The more closely related two species are, the more likely a virus is to jump from one species to another,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe explained that you cannot count on the next pandemic to be like the last one, and because of this his research is “not just theoretical” and we need to understand how viruses are contracted, and where they originate.

Wolfe’s book,  “The Viral Storm: The Dawn of A New Pandemic Age” will be released this fall.