We are on the brink of a new pandemic age, warns the Indiana Jones of pathogens. And what he finds in the wilderness could destroy our cities, he tells Mark Piesing.
For many, the dimly remembered panics over the bird-flu, swine-flu and Sars pandemics may now seem like a case of the authorities crying wolf, or even a conspiracy to boost the profits of Big Pharma. But to “virus hunter” Professor Nathan Wolfe, these viruses, which had all crossed over from wild animals, were merely the first gusts of a viral storm blowing out of the jungle and heading straight towards us.
Last year, Professor Wolfe’s work led to the creation of an embryonic early-warning network of “viral listening posts” across Africa and Asia. The network earned his not-for-profit Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (now renamed Global Viral) the label of the “CIA of the viral world” and its founder a place in Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people of 2011.
His for-profit Global Viral Forecasting Inc has been renamed Metabiota. This year, his latest book, The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, which was pubished last October, has been longlisted for the Royal Society’s Winton Prize, won previously by the likes of Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) and Stephen Hawking.
“Up to now, we have been bullet dodging, but right now lurking in the jungle are viruses that, if they crossed over, have the capability to kill hundreds of millions of us,” Professor Wolfe says. “And in a world where for the first time in history we can travel from the heart of the jungle to downtown London in little more than 24 hours there is an ever-increasing risk our luck is going to run out.
“After all, despite all the efforts of the public health authorities, swine flu still infected 10 per cent of the world’s population, and if it had been a little more deadly it could have easily killed millions.”
However, for Professor Wolfe there is also hope as, along with “the wonderful precedent of earlier efforts of the campaign to eliminate smallpox”, we now have “a whole load of tools that mean for the first time we can do something to prevent one of these hugely costly pandemics”.