In the Hot Zone with Dr. Nathan Wolfe

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Current World Bank estimates put the global population around 6.8 billion humans, so to be named by Time magazine as one of 2011’s top 100 most influential people in the world you have to be doing something interesting. We’re confident you’ll find Dr. Nathan Wolfe fits that bill.

As founder and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, a non-governmental organization whose team of scientists has spent more than a decade developing a global system to prevent pandemics, Wolfe is elbow-deep in the “hot zone,” the term made famous by author Richard Preston’s 1994 book of the same name.

In addition to the globetrotting hunt for viruses, Wolfe is the Lorry I. Lokey Visiting Professor in Human Biology at Stanford University, his undergraduate alma mater. He earned his doctorate in immunology and infectious diseases from Harvard in 1998.

Wolfe’s list of academic accomplishments is — in and of itself — an amazing feat: 1997 Fulbright fellow; recipient of the 1999 National Institutes of Health International Research Scientist Development Award; and the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award in 2005.

More impressive though is what the man does on a fairly regular basis: Collecting blood samples in “the bush” from both man and beast in the attempt to find new and emergent pathogens before they find you or me.

All this (and much more) achieved by a good Jewish boy raised in West Bloomfield. The son of Charles Wolfe and Carole Wittenberg, Nathan graduated from West Bloomfield High School in 1988.

Now living in San Francisco where his NGO is based, Wolfe is currently touring the country promoting his new book, The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age (Times/Henry Holt; $26; 320 pp), and will be returning to his hometown this month for a speaking engagement to at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield (see below).

RT: “Swashbuckling” is not a typical adjective for a virologist, yet you’ve been called the Indiana Jones of virology. What are you hunting for?

NW: We’re looking for the interesting and unknown things in nature that have the potential to harm us and catch them early before they spread — and also ones that may be useful for us.

RT: What’s so intriguing about microbes that you’re willing to put yourself in harm’s way?

NW: I was studying wild chimps in southwest Uganda and was interested in the origins of HIV. As I started looking into the world of microbes, I realized just how little we knew about them. It’s an incredibly unseen world that could harm us, but also potentially find solutions to diseases like cancer or schizophrenia.

RT: What message are you hoping  people take away from your book, The Viral Storm?

NW: That we can’t let our guard down because, with regard to pandemics, we live in an incredibly interconnected world — and we’re going to experience more and more of these deadly events over time; we can develop the tools that will allow us to conquer these threats.

RT: The notion of pandemics was seemingly eradicated by the mid-1960s. Then came AIDS, SARS and H1N1. The last one you’ve described as a dodged bullet (due to its relatively mild effect on humans). How long do we have before the world catches another Spanish flu?

NW: I think it’s more a question of “when” than a question of “if.” The way flights, trains and boats link humans to one another and to animal populations, where something that emerges from a little remote village but has the potential to travel to Washington, D.C., or Detroit or Tokyo in a matter of days, means we’re going to experience more and more of these events.

RT: In 2008, when you walked away from a tenured position in epidemiology at UCLA to become a swashbuckler, you quipped about explaining that decision to your Jewish mother. So, how’d she react?

NW: I’ve always had good support from my family; they’ve never encouraged me to just chase after the money or security. They have been very understanding that I have a unique opportunity to try to change part of the way we think about the world.

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