Dr. Nathan Wolfe Hunts Viruses to Prevent Pandemic

Nathan Wolfe walks in the jungle in Southern Cameroon to observe what bushmeat hunters do to get their food. Photo: Jonathan Torgovnik
Nathan Wolfe walks in the jungle in Southern Cameroon to observe what bushmeat hunters do to get their food. Photo: Jonathan Torgovnik

This article originally appeared on page A-1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on February 19, 2012.

AIDS, Ebola, avian flu, swine flu. All threatening diseases stemming from terrifying viruses that spread quickly and have infected hundreds of millions of people around the world. All started in animals, mutated, jumped to humans and became pandemics. All of them kill some of the people they infect and some of them kill a lot of the people they infect.

But what if we knew they were coming? What if there were an early warning system that gave us a way to prevent the next big viral outbreak? There are scientists who believe prevention is possible and one of the most prominent, Dr. Nathan Wolfe, is leading the global virus hunt from a downtown office in San Francisco.

Wolfe, 41, a virologist and Stanford biology professor, founded the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative in 2008. He hunts viruses by traipsing through the jungles of Africa and Southeast Asia with local hunters, collecting blood samples from both the animals and the humans who butcher them. In that role, he resembles a modern-day Indiana Jones.

In fact, early this month he received the Roy Chapman Andrews Distinguished Explorer Award, named for the real-life adventurer upon whom the Indiana Jones character reportedly was based. The award is given in recognition of “scientific exploration in the field that results in discoveries of worldwide significance.”

Like Indiana Jones

Wolfe’s biography is both Jones-like and intimidating. Stanford. Oxford. Harvard. UCLA. Years of research in Cameroon and Borneo. Speaking engagements at the Davos World Economic Forum and the TED Talks. Subject of a New Yorker profile and CNN’s “Planet in Peril” series. One of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2011 and author of a new book, “The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age” (Times Books, $26).

Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh hired him as a scientific consultant on the recent blockbuster “Contagion,” a film Wolfe says “did an impressive job of getting things right.”

And he commands the respect of a staff of Silicon Valley biologists, data analysts and computer scientists, many of whom he lured away from more lucrative careers to work for his global initiative.

The organization, which now includes about 25 people, has drawn funding from the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, Google.org and the Palo Alto-based Skoll Foundation.

Not so intimidating

In person, though, Wolfe isn’t so intimidating. Broad-shouldered, he wears khakis, T-shirts and sports a 24-hour 5 o’clock shadow. His office in San Francisco’s Flatiron Building is furnished by Ikea. A few pieces of African art have been hung erratically on the walls.

His eyes are kind, even when he’s discussing a serious topic – which is most of the time. He peppers his conversation with scientific and medical terms, and makes viruses sound so fascinating that the listener momentarily forgets how deadly they can be.

Lucky Gunasekara, a former Stanford medical student with a computer science background, dropped out of medical school to work for Wolfe full time. He leads a team developing technology to analyze all sorts of data – from field offices, labs, the Internet, social media and other sources – looking for signals of viral outbreak.

He was originally interested in AIDS prevention, but Gunasekara said Wolfe convinced him over their first conversation- in an Irish pub in San Francisco – that a job with Global Viral Forecasting would allow him to have a bigger impact than if he worked on AIDS exclusively.

“It’s about possibility,” Gunasekara said. “We work in a place that looks at pandemics and says, ‘We’re not going to freak out. We’re gong to solve this … and prevent preventable deaths.’ ”

Deadliest of all

In his book, Wolfe points out that pandemics can be far more deadly than wars or natural disasters. The 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, for example, had a death toll in the tens of thousands.