CVC East keynote: Preventing the next pandemic


4-20-2008 - Baltimore - Dr. Nathan Wolfe, professor of epidemiology at the University of California Los Angeles hopes to prevent the next pandemic.

Baltimore -- Dr. Nathan Wolfe, professor of epidemiology at the University of California Los Angeles hopes to prevent the next pandemic.

In fact, his job is to understand the process by which "new viruses enter the human population." By monitoring interactions of micro-organisms, sometimes called viral chatter, researchers can begin to make predictions about the likely mutation and emergence of viruses. He made the remarks to veterinarians in the opening session of CVC East on April 18.

But the world has experienced tremendous change in a very short period in history, Wolfe says. "Urbanization is a key transition. We made the transition of being a primarily rural species to an urban species for the first time in our history."

The threat of a wide-scale pandemic grows proportionately with the mobility and density of the human population in modern times, Wolfe contends.

In an effort to study possible outbreaks, his research team attempts to track viral transmission earlier in the cycle, which could alter the spread of viruses.

Take AIDS for example. In 1981, the first cases were diagnosed in the United States. Yet, viral modeling suggests HIV entered the human population 50 to 60 years earlier. "There were already 100,000 individuals infected globally. Even if we can't prevent a pandemic, a few years of time could help us change it."

"There is an incredible variety of micro-organisms present in wild populations as well as domestic populations," Wolfe explains. "It is this exposure that led to the origin of human diseases."

"The way I think of it is a bubbling up. You have agents in wild animals and domestic populations. You have exposures through hunting, veterinary contact, through wild-animal markets, through zoos and pets, and a whole range or other contacts. Your primary infections -- most of these will go nowhere. A few of these will lead to limited outbreaks. Most will go extinct, and only a few will make it up this pyramid to become human agents," Wolfe says.

Tracking the diversity of viruses has been the focus of his research for the last decade, and it most recently led to the discovery of primate retroviruses in the blood of three African hunters. The findings show that cross-species transmission of viral diseases are not as rare as suspected.

"In 50 years, they will probably say we did a pretty good job of putting out fires, but they weren't moving forward very fast when it comes to prevention. From what we have seen, this is a good way to start this effort, and it is what I plan to be doing for the next 10 to 15 years of my life."

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