Meet The Indiana Jones Of Virus Hunters

Inside the world of Nathan Wolfe, the man trying to save humanity from killer pandemics

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On a weekday morning in mid-summer, Nathan Wolfe walks into Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco’s affluent Nob Hill neighbourhood. The restaurant has about two dozen rickety wooden stools along an old-fashioned diner-style counter. A wall menu, partly handwritten, looks like it hasn’t changed in decades. If you don’t like raw seafood, you won’t like eating here. But this is Wolfe’s favourite place in town, just down the street from his apartment. He visits it as often as possible, which, he says, “isn’t often enough”.

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Wolfe has just returned from a three-week visit to Cameroon and Gabon, where the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), the non-profit organisation he founded in 2008 on the back of funding sources as diverse as the US Department of Defence and Google.org, is doing some of the most important and dangerous virus-detection work in the world.

Wolfe’s trip was a whirlwind of lab visits, conferences with military officials, and, most importantly, specimen collecting in the bush.

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A day at the office for Wolfe, when he’s in the field, involves harrowing multi-hour drives to some of the world’s most remote forest areas, where he and his team gather blood samples from African bush hunters and their animal quarry.

These distant outposts, he will explain, are the potential source of the most deadly viral diseases afflicting humankind. By looking for the source, he’s trying to stop the next global pandemic in its tracks before it starts.

Wolfe can “jam on the science” like nobody else, says his GVFI colleague Jeremy Alberga, but he gets just as animated when talking about the adventurous aspects of his life that have led him to be referred to, time and again, as “the Indiana Jones of virus hunting”.

He likes to talk about the time he contracted a rare “collector’s item” strain of malaria that almost killed him, or the apocryphal story of how he and some colleagues were coming out of the Cameroonian bush with some rare blood samples when they encountered a lorry jack-knifed across the road.

There was no driver around, or any sign that someone was coming to clear the accident away. The samples needed to be refrigerated. They wouldn’t be good forever. And they’d spent weeks persuading people to give them. So Wolfe and his colleagues got out and started digging a track around the stranded vehicle with their bare hands so that they could get through.

That’s how Wolfe operates. He knows his way around Central African logging roads like a city-dweller knows a subway map. There’s no predicament too large to prevent him from getting the word out about viruses.

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But first, a shellfish breakfast in San Francisco. The staff are getting ready for the day’s lunch rush, mixing up mignonette and cocktail sauce. Wolfe likes this place because of the authentic local feel. In some ways, even though it’s 100 times more expensive, it reminds him of roadside restaurants in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, his home for years and which he still visits often. There, he breakfasts with cab drivers, eating omelettes made with sardines, spaghetti and chillies and cooked in palm oil.

When the staff at Swan see Wolfe, everything stops. Wolfe, 40 and trim, is dressed casually in a sweater and trousers. His hair is buzzed down and he wears a close stubble, which is how he prefers his beard.

“I either have long hair or I shave it all off,” he says. “I’m not an in-between kind of guy.”
“Hey, Nate, how’s it going?” says a bar worker.
“It’s going good.”
“Where you been?”
“Oh, here and there,” Wolfe says.
“What are you in the mood for?” asks a counter guy.
“What’s fresh?”
“We’re catching a lot of local seafood. First time in five years. It’s nice.”

Wolfe decides on a platter of oysters and clams to start. Raw tuna and hamachi will follow, and then an assortment of smoked salmon. That’s a mild meal for him. On his travels, he’s dined on everything from fried grubworm to porcupine, and on up the food chain. “I don’t do primate,” he says.

Nothing, except probably viruses, gets him fired up with more enthusiasm and excitement than food does. In his mind, the two subjects are connected, because viruses often “jump” from one species to another when people — be they hunters, farmers or vendors at public markets with less-than-ideal sanitation — come into contact with animals that they plan to eat. 

“People everywhere in the world eat local wild food,” he says. “That’s the nature of being human. But some people are in places with a lot more underlying viruses.”

Then he says: “I’m gonna have a bloody beer. You want one?”

A “bloody beer”, it turns out, is a house speciality of Swan Oyster Depot. It’s essentially a Bloody Mary — fresh-made tomato juice and a house spice blend, but with beer instead of vodka. Wolfe plans on drinking one before ever setting foot in the office, at 10am on a Tuesday. It’s hard to resist the offer. When you’re with Nathan Wolfe, you do as the locals do.

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Even though viruses — tiny, non-cellular creatures that need to infect cell-based lifeforms in order to survive — have been evolving with human beings since we first stepped down from the trees millions of years ago, we’ve only been aware of them since 1921, when a Dutch scientist discovered their existence while studying disease in tobacco plants. 

We still know relatively little about viruses, but we do know that, though the majority of them are relatively harmless (and some are actually beneficial), a small percentage have the ability to make humans enormously sick. And the risks increase exponentially every year. “The nature of how we, as a society, deal with threats from microbes is very much how we dealt with risks for heart disease in the Fifties and Sixties,” Wolfe says. “It’s as if all of our energy was spent not trying to prevent cancer or heart disease, but just focused on chemotherapy and bypass surgery.”

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In 1967, William Stewart, the US Surgeon General, famously told a gathering of health experts at the White House: “The time has come to close the book on infectious diseases. We have basically wiped out infection in the United States.” It was, to be sure, an era of medical triumph. Polio, cholera, typhoid fever and even the deadly smallpox virus, had all been defeated, or nearly, in the West.

But the statement turned out to have more than a faint air of George W Bush’s “mission accomplished” comment concerning the Iraq War. In Stewart’s day, dread scourges like Ebola and Sars hadn’t yet made their appearance and HIV was unknown except to a few primate scientists working in obscurity. Despite the Surgeon General’s boasting, the era of viral infection had barely begun.

Since World War II, more than 300 new viral diseases have infected humans. Seventy-five per cent of those are “zoonotic”, meaning they’ve jumped from wild animals. As human life becomes more globalised, it creates a rich, nutritious environment for viral life. Miners, loggers and hunters are coming into contact with wildlife in more remote areas than ever before, but they’re also shipping their wares to densely packed cities. Conditions are ripe for outbreak.

“There is simply no greater threat to humanity than a viral pandemic,” Wolfe stated last year. “What is more likely to kill millions of people? Nuclear war or a virus that makes the leap from animal to man? If, tomorrow, I had to go to Las Vegas and place a bet on the next great killer, then I would put all my money on a virus.”

Though it seemed like the HIV pandemic appeared out of nowhere to plague the world’s urban gay communities in the Eighties, recent findings show that the virus first jumped from chimpanzee to human around 1900. But at the time HIV first appeared, it wasn’t so easy for viruses to get out of remote areas of Africa.

One hundred years ago, human beings were much more isolated, new diseases didn’t travel so easily, thus HIV remained unnoticed for decades.

Contrast that with Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Sars first manifested itself in 2003 when a 48-year-old man from Guangdong province in China, who’d come into contact with the disease at a meat market, fell ill in a hotel in Hong Kong. The virus spread and mutated fast, killing 774 people in Europe, North America and Asia, though it infected thousands more. The World Health Organisation responded efficiently and was able to contain the virus, but that was largely because Sars had spread to countries with well-developed public health systems.

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Influenza, the most common form of viral infection, also continues to evolve. When the “Spanish flu” roared around the world in 1918 and 1919, claiming up to 50 million lives, humans had little idea from whence it had come or how to stop it — they simply had to wait for the contagion to burn itself out. 

H1N1, or “swine flu”, struck in 2009 with potentially far more severe consequences. Viral lifeforms have the ability to “reassort”, or to mix and match, genes, to create completely new viruses. H1N1 brought together one strain of human influenza, one from birds and another from pigs, to create a potential “super-flu” that, if the worst-case scenario had been realised, would have made the 1918–19 pandemic look insignificant.

The World Health Organisation estimated it could have infected up to two billion people, one-third of human beings. Though swine flu spread fast, a relatively few 18,398 people died worldwide and a panicked humanity breathed a sigh of relief.

But, says Nathan Wolfe, we may have learned the wrong lesson. Three years after the H1N1 contagion, very little has changed. “We’re not dodging bullets here,” he explains. “We’re dodging things that are much more dangerous than bullets. If someone shoots a cannonball at you and it misses you, you want to understand where it’s coming from.

When you have something that moves so effectively, had it become even nominally more harmful, you would have been talking about hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dead people, easily. We just got incredibly lucky.”

Swine flu should have brought on a critique of the global health system, Wolfe says. “Not that they overreacted,” he continues. “The critique should have been that, despite your best actions, 10 per cent of the human population got infected. What if it had grown more deadly? Then you would have been talking about a massive global disaster. People don’t get that. H1N1 represents the moment, to me, where we take a deep breath and say, ‘Look, we’re experiencing these things. We have to understand where they’re coming from. You’d better know about it; you’d better figure it out. Responding appropriately is good, but we’re going to hold you to a higher standard.’”

Though Wolfe is concerned about keeping people from getting sick, he’s not in the pandemic prevention business. His bailiwick is to explore the originating nature of pandemics, to predict them. He gets the word out any way he can, whether as a scientific consultant to the Steven Soderbergh virus movie Contagion, starring Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Matt Damon, or, now, as an author.

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In The Viral Storm, Wolfe argues that though “much hard work remains… we will harness the numerous technological advances of our time that provide tools to predict pandemics – just as meteorologists predict the course of hurricanes – and ideally prevent them from occurring in the first place. This is the Holy Grail of modern public health”.

In the search for that grail, Wolfe is undeniably King Arthur.

 

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Wolfe grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the son of social workers. His father was involved in Jewish community services and his mother was a school guidance counsellor. From an early age, he found himself focused on biology. He remembers seeing a National Geographic documentary about primates through which he learnt that humans are more closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas than we are to Old World monkeys, such as colobus, baboons and so on. “That was when I started thinking that I wanted to do science,” he says. “I became fascinated with these animals.” He realised that human beings might not, in fact, be the centre of the natural universe.

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Throughout high school, Wolfe studied evolutionary biology and primatology. Though he became “a little bit distracted” by philosophy while an undergraduate at Stanford University in the early Nineties, he got accepted to do a junior-year evolutionary biology honours project at Oxford. “I remember thinking to myself that this was a great way to find out about different places in the world,” he says. His boyhood passion, it turned out, was also the gateway to a life of travel and adventure.

Wolfe’s initial research was on the self-medicating behaviour of chimps; like other animals in nature, they use various plants as natural treatments against diseases. As a doctoral student at Harvard, Wolfe won a slot to study in Uganda with the British primatologist Richard Wrangham, who persuaded him his initial focus was a little off-base. “He said I needed to understand the underlying disease states of the animals to address this question,” Wolfe said. Any study of self-medicating would take years, if not decades, and might never yield results. It was the kind of advice on which a career is built.

Those were unglamorous times for Wolfe, with many hours spent picking mosquitoes out of primate faeces in remote forest areas. Wolfe travelled from Africa to Borneo, where he rescued stranded orangutans and pursued his dissertation work, which involved analysing pathogens found in orangutan blood. Studying apes made sense for him, because they have similar biological structures to humans, but are far more resistant to disease. Just as importantly, they live in regions of greater biological diversity and therefore have more exposure to obscure pathogens.

“The underlying animals that cause these potential future pandemics are not evenly distributed around the world,” Wolfe says. “Here in San Francisco, I’m not saying we don’t have some interesting biodiversity. But if we see something brand new here, it originated somewhere else.”

Wolfe began to build a reputation in the highly specialised world of virology. In the late Nineties, while working in Borneo, he received a message saying a “man from the military” was looking for him. That man turned out to be Dr Donald Burke, the chief virologist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, now based in Silver Spring, Maryland. They’d met at a public-health conference a year before. Burke had spent years studying the spread of HIV in the US military, and had noticed that every strain of the disease seemed to point back to the Central African countries of Gabon and Cameroon.

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In the late Nineties, Burke made contact with Cameroon’s military, whose public-health officials pointed him towards “bushmeat”, or wild game, taken by rural hunters. When Burke saw Africans hunting wild chimpanzees and then witnessed them surrounded by the blood and viscera of their prey, he quickly made the connection. He deduced that this could, potentially, represent a viral ground zero for humanity. No one had come to this conclusion before. It needed to be researched and Burke asked Wolfe to lead the project.

In 2000, Wolfe moved to Cameroon and began to assemble a remarkable coalition of scientists, bureaucrats, villagers, soldiers and researchers of varying nationalities. Even now, when you ask Wolfe what he does for a living, he says modestly: “My job is to pull together really cool talent.” The project quickly turned into a scientist’s dream assignment. “It’s that perfect balance of being able to wear a suit on the one hand and being out in the jungle on the other, and very often we’re doing both on the same trip,” says Joseph Fair, Wolfe’s chief science officer.

Wolfe became beloved in some of the most remote rural villages on Earth. In Cameroon, they refer to him as grand frère, or big brother. One villager in the Democratic Republic of Congo named her son Docteur Nathan after him. Jeremy Alberga, GVFI’s chief operating officer, says: “They sense the commitment Nathan has towards them.”

But early on, before he had a multi-million-dollar organisation behind him, Wolfe was a lone scientist trying to find the missing link that would prove that viruses frequently jumped from animals to humans. He approached the retrovirology branch of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, and, in particular, a scientist named William Switzer. Working together, Wolfe and Switzer investigated something called a simian foamy virus, or SFV, so named because when cells become infected with the virus, they bubble up and die, creating the impression of foam under the microscope.

SFV, as Wolfe explains in The Viral Storm, infects virtually all non-human primates. Each primate has its own particular version of SFV, meaning that if Wolfe and Switzer could find one in humans, they’d be able to tell exactly from which primate it originated. Conventional wisdom a decade ago held that, while cross-species transmission of viruses could happen, it was so rare as to be scientifically irrelevant. But Wolfe suspected that retroviruses flowed regularly from animals into the human population. He went to the CDC to find out.

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A shipment of blood samples arrived from Cameroon, accompanied by Wolfe. Within the first few hundred specimens, Wolfe got his first “hit” from the blood of a Central African gorilla hunter. The sample showed that the exact type of SFV carried by the gorilla had jumped into the hunter. It was, Switzer says, “a canary in a cage moment”, the first definitive scientific proof that simian retroviruses could cross directly over into humans.

Subsequent samples showed similar findings. Wolfe, until then an obscure researcher, suddenly had a major scientific discovery under his belt. “We had shown that retroviruses continue to cross over,” Switzer says. “We’re still at risk from these retroviruses, which are capable of creating a pandemic. If we don’t monitor them at the human-primate interface, then we may indeed have another pandemic of retroviruses on our hands.”

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The discovery occurred on 11 September 2002. Wolfe has a photo of the slide sample — he calls it the “Western blot” — displayed proudly in his San Francisco office. “It gave us a certain proof of concept that we could monitor the flow of agents into humans,” he says. “I had a slight feeling of foreboding, though. It became instantly clear that it was crazy that new retroviruses were crossing into humans, and not only were existing systems not moving, they weren’t looking in the right places.”

But where other people may have been afraid, Wolfe sensed opportunity. The “Western blot” formed the basis for the amazing work he’d do over the next decade. “That’s when we said, ‘We can do this’,” he says.

In 2008, Wolfe left a rare guaranteed lifetime professorship at the University of California, Los Angeles — the kind that academics murder one another for — to start GVFI. It was, given his academic status and relative youth, an eccentric decision. “I wanted to do something independently,” he says, “and I wanted to do something potentially really big.”

No one doubts Wolfe is up to the challenge. Colleagues describe him as “visionary” and “dynamic”. Given his fields of expertise and the variety of people he’s met working in the field, few scientists could pull off what  he does. “It takes a certain type of person to work in the kinds of atmospheres Nathan does,” says Mark Smolinski, director of global health for the Skoll Global Threats Fund, who, when an executive at Google.org gave Wolfe a multi-million-dollar grant in 2007, commented: “He calls upon a lot of creativity.”

This is an American who managed to pull together military leaders from eight Central African countries into a political alliance designed to monitor and prevent new influenza outbreaks. He did it with  the help of the US Department of Defence, which had funded the construction of Wolfe’s research laboratory in Cameroon. Wolfe brought to bear all the medical diplomacy he’d been developing over the years. “Military-to-military alliances are a niche no one else really cares about,” says Dr Kevin Russell, director of the US Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center at Silver Spring. “Nathan’s not military, but he accepted that challenge.”

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“What I do now doesn’t feel that different from what I used to do,” Wolfe says in his unassuming way. “It sort of feels the same. It’s just that I’m doing it in more places.”

Wolfe’s next task is even more far-reaching. He dreams of a day when scientists predict viral outbreaks at the source, which he describes in vivid sci-fi detail in the last chapter of The Viral Storm:

“The large, brightly lit, mostly white-walled room appears at once chaotic and oddly organised. Young kids in their Silicon Valley uniforms of hoodies and sneakers sit hunched over laptops, talking on the phone and instant messaging while simultaneously mashing together and analysing massive amounts of data. Large monitors with maps and streaming news line the walls. There are no windows, so it’s hard to determine if it’s daytime or evening…”

As the scenario unfolds, “an older group wearing suits and formal business attire” — which, we assume, would include Wolfe himself, though his own sartorial style tends towards the casual — arrives to discuss very serious matters. A disease has broken out in Central Africa and the team is crunching data. “Chief medical complaints” are coming in from “an early but robust cell-phone-based electronic medical record system based in Lagos”.

Twitter and Google trends seem to be showing viral outbreaks as well. The team works the phones with various clinics. “The uptick is due to none of the usual suspects,” Wolfe writes. It could be a new disease, and it must be stopped.

“While we’re not there yet,” Wolfe writes, “the control room is exactly what we need — an innovative group devoted entirely to understanding and analysing biological threats and catching them before they become disasters.”

The reality of what Wolfe’s been able to cobble together through various funding sources, while still impressive, is a bit more modest. GVFI occupies a cramped corner of a multi-storey office building overlooking Market Street, the central business corridor of downtown San Francisco. Half the desk space is given over to medical researchers or anthropologists, who are in the field much of the time. Wolfe’s dream team of about a dozen hoodie-wearing Silicon Valley geniuses, many of whom work part-time, is crammed into two tight rows of desks in what used to be GVFI’s reception area.

They’re working on something called Epidemic IQ, which, as the system’s designer told me, is “a cloud-based computer system that will trace outbreaks of pandemics from anywhere in the world”. When I request a viewing, he declines, saying it contains a lot of “proprietary data”. In other words, it’s not ready.

Wolfe’s San Francisco office, though tidy, is just as tight a squeeze as the rest of the GVFI HQ. Every spare inch of wall is covered with names of potential investment or research partners, or phrases you’d never find written on the walls of other people’s offices, like “Weird human malaria”, “Sars seropositive in exposed” and “Unknown pox”. One folder on Wolfe’s desk is labelled “Swine flu origins”; another “Why is cancer?”

The writing extends to one of his office windows. “We ran out of whiteboard space,” he says apologetically. It includes the enigmatic phrase “Monkey sushi”.

In his office, Wolfe talks about the frustrations of trying to realise his ambitions of a comprehensive global disease-prediction network. 

There are resources out there that would allow us to do this in a way that would be systematic across the board,” he says. “The global disease-control budget spent on prevention is decimal dust. We’re not even talking 1 per cent. Let’s just start diversifying the portfolio a little bit. The public’s attention waxes and wanes. The media focuses on the disease du jour. It’s a disastrous way to think.” He hopes to one day get the majority of people thinking his way.

Back at Swan Oyster Depot, he’s long since polished off his bloody beer and goes on to talk about his second-favourite topic.

He was a vegetarian, he says, until age 18, but that time is long past. “One morning, I woke up in Cameroon,” he says. “A guard was in the kitchen chopping up a cobra that had snuck in during the night. I was afraid that would end up being my breakfast. I haven’t eaten cobra yet, but I have eaten python. You’d expect, when you’re eating snake, to have a long thing, but they serve it in steaks. The front end and the back end taste totally different. And it did not taste like chicken.”

He picks up a littleneck clam and tucks into it with delight. “I do my best to receive hospitality wherever it’s offered,” he says.

This feature was originally published in the November 2011 issue of Esquire

The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age is out now

 

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