Q&A: A Conversation with Nathan Wolfe

Nathan Wolfe’s research takes him far outside the confines of a lab. As director and founder of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), an organization Time Magazine dubbed the “CIA of infectious disease,” Dr. Wolfe travels the globe tracking emerging viruses in hopes of preventing the next pandemic. Rachel Brown ’15 reports.

(Courtesy Bart Nagel)

Q: Would you mind briefly describing the work you do as a “virus hunter?”

A: My job and the mission of my organization is to decrease the global risks associated with threats from microbes of any sort. A lot of the story of these microbial threats has to do with our relationship and contact with animals, so we’re very interested in the contact between human and animal species and understanding how microbes flow into the human population.

Q: Do you think that viruses that originated in animals are becoming more significant to human diseases, like Avian Flu and Swine Flu, for example?

A: If you think about “new viruses” in humans, there are only really two ways that you can get something because [viruses] are changing all the time, but they’re not continuing to come into existence. The only two ways you can get it are (1) that it’s been in your ancestors for some time or (2) that it comes from another species. Things that are in little pockets of humans can then emerge more broadly, but basically the entire story has to do with animals. But it has always been the case that it’s been about animal viruses. What’s really changed is the global interconnectivity of human populations. A virus that crosses into humans, that fifty or a hundred years ago would have had a really good chance of either dying out or just staying put locally, now has a global stage on which to do its thing.

HIV is a great example. HIV is a virus that’s been in chimpanzee populations for at least some hundreds of thousands of years. And humans have been hunting chimpanzees for the entire duration of that  period. So you have to imagine that the particular chimpanzee virus that jumped from a chimp to a human in the early 20th century, and then in the last part of the 20th century spread around the world to be the HIV/AIDS pandemic, was not the first one of these chimpanzee viruses to jump into humans. But one of the major factors in the late 20th century was that instead of the virus just basically burning  itself out in a little village in rural Central Africa, we had a situation where the world was completely interconnected.

Q: How do you explain your research to local hunters and other community members who might not have the same level of science background?

A: Even in places where there’s a large percentage of individuals who have no more than a primary level of education, these folks understand much more about the forest that they work in and the animals that they work with than we ever will as visitors. When we say things like, “some of these animals are going to be ill and there’s the potential that humans can contract the illnesses from the animals, and sometimes those illnesses can spread,” it’s a very intuitive thing for a lot of people that we work with. For us it’s very much a collaborative exercise. Many of the people in these communities [even] assist us in collecting specimens.

Q: How do you see the link between opportunities for disease control and economic and human development in these regions?

A: One of the things you find when you go to these villages is that most people want to be on the grid. Their first desires are for better roads so they have easier contact with economic opportunities and infrastructure. And so there’s a tremendous, and you have to assume very rational, desire to be a part of the interconnected planet.

From my perspective, one of the challenges is that these roads provide avenues for transmission and movement of diseases both from these rural biodiverse areas to the rest of the world, but also from the rest of the world to these rural communities. But the connectivity also provides us with the opportunity to understand what’s going on in these communities and to improve health infrastructure and early detection. It’s also very important that we get together and really take seriously the problems of poverty in rural regions because in some ways there’s a very clear poverty link.

Rachel Brown ’15 is in Saybrook College. Contact her at rachel.brown@yale.edu.