Dec 30 2011

The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe

Lizzie Wade

web exclusive

Nathan Wolfe is one of the last members of a dying breed: the adventurer scientist. As the founder and CEO of Global Viral Forecasting, he has spent much of his professional life in the jungles of Africa and Asia hunting down new viruses with the goal of stopping the next pandemic before it spreads. He shows off his potent combination of expertise and swagger in his new book, The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, which gamely attempts to explain why humans are more at risk from pandemics than ever before and what we can do to stop them.

Wolfe is an undeniably compelling author—the charisma and sense of adventure he captures in The Viral Storm is matched by the penetrating gaze on display in his author photo—and infectious disease is irresistible as subject matter. As Wolfe points out in his introduction, epidemiology is one of the few branches of science that lends itself easily to narrative, since, as he writes, the "natural drama" of a fast spreading pandemic is "hard to overstate." Scientists racing against the clock to find a cure; the life-or-death puzzle of tracing an outbreak to its source; the single sneeze, meal, or sexual encounter with the potential to alter the course of world events—these are stories begging to be told, and Wolfe opens his book with one of them: a summary of the brief life and ominous death of Kaptan Boonmanuch, a six-year-old boy who, in 2003, was the first person in Thailand to die of bird flu, becoming one of the earliest victims of "a brand-new human virus."

In Wolfe's telling, Kaptan was a casualty in an ongoing war between humans and microbes that began over eight million years ago, when the common ancestor shared by chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans learned to hunt and eat meat. Butchering animals for consumption is an extremely messy process; from a microbe's point of view, Wolfe says, it represents "the ultimate intimacy, a connection between one species and all of the various tissues of another, along with the particular microbes that inhabit each one of them." Most viruses that find themselves in a new host are quickly destroyed by its immune system, but occasionally one will hit the evolutionary jackpot and develop the ability to thrive in its new environment. And sometimes, as in the cases of bird flu, SARS, HIV, Ebola, and swine flu, that can spell disease and even death for the host.

While The Viral Storm provides chilling information about potential pandemics, interesting forays into the history of our species, and a close look at the intricacies of the microbial world (Wolfe teaches a course at Stanford called Viral Lifestyles), the book is at its best when Wolfe tackles the advantages and hazards of growing global interconnectedness. Roads built by logging companies into the dense forests of Cameroon, for example, have increased economic opportunities for locals, but not enough to eliminate their need to hunt and eat bushmeat. By butchering wild mammals, Cameroonian hunters and their families are routinely exposed to novel viruses, some of which develop the ability to survive in humans. And when infected people use the logging roads to travel to a market town or, even worse, an airport, the virus goes with them.

If we are to have any hope of preventing the next AIDS pandemic—which unfolded in precisely this way over the course of a century—Wolfe argues that we need to keep a close eye on the viruses that are actively making the jump from animals to humans, as well as those that are spreading quickly through the human population. To do that, he argues that we need to take advantage of the same global interconnectedness that HIV has so successfully exploited. By teaching hunters to collect blood samples from their kills, by encouraging doctors to share information through electronic medical records, and even by looking at how many people in a particular area are Googling symptoms or tweeting from their sickbeds, Wolfe believes that we can turn seemingly disparate networks of information into what he calls a "global immune system" that could potentially help us stop deadly pandemics in their tracks. "The ultimate hope," he says, "is that outbreak detection can be crowdsourced."

But despite Wolfe's easy style, lucid prose, and ear for 21st century buzzwords, The Viral Storm is nearly empty of the emotional details that make the intersection of human and microbial lives so narratively compelling. The book is bursting with Wolfe's personal anecdotes about almost every research project he mentions—illustrated with informal photos of his scientist colleagues on motorcycles or at home with their cats—but he never paints similarly intimate or humanizing portraits of the people who are actually getting sick and dying from the viruses he has devoted his life to finding and studying.

Immediately after recounting the story of Kaptan Boonmanuch, Wolfe writes, "when it comes to global risk, all deaths are not equal." This is quite the takeaway from a discussion of the painful and mysterious death of a six-year-old boy. He is right, of course, and a visionary approach to pandemic prevention requires that you stay focused on the big picture. But when he abstracts personal tragedies through global information networks—when my Google searches about flu symptoms and Kaptan Boonmanuch's death are given equal weight in the story of a potential pandemic—the looming threat is, ironically, minimized and the book's narrative loses force. By trying to tell a story about everyone, Wolfe risks telling a story about no one.

Lizzie Wade is a science and culture writer living in Los Angeles.