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Understanding the bug

Book>> The Viral Storm • by Nathan D Wolfe • Penguin • Rs 450

By R Abhishek Kumar
Published: Wednesday 30 November 2011

imageIn the Steven Soderbergh film Contagion business executive Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) becomes inexplicably sick after a trip to Hong Kong. Her condition deteriorates and Emhoff succumbs to a mystery disease, which then claims her young one. Dismissed as a minor bug in the beginning of the film, the virus spreads alarmingly, with no treatment protocol or vaccine. Investigations trace the bug to a bat whose nest was destroyed during forest clearing by a mining company. The homeless bat then infects a pig, which is slaughtered and a chef in Hong Kong, who carries the pig blood on his hands, passes it on to the unsuspecting Emhoff.

In The Viral Storm, Nathan D Wolfe puts an academic spin to Emhoff’s misfortune. The book was released at about the same time as Contagion, and according to some media reports, the film is loosely based on Wolfe’s research. Wolfe is director of the Global Virus Forecasting Initiative and one of the world’s foremost virus trackers; in the book he takes readers to some of the deadliest hot spots.

The virologist, often called the Indiana Jones of virus hunters, believes our interconnectedness is making us more vulnerable to bugs. We no longer live on a planet where pockets of life persist for centuries without contact with others. “Over the past few hundred years, humans have constructed a world in which frogs living in one place are shipped to locations where they have never previously existed, and one where humans can literally have their boots in the mud of Australia one day and in the rivers of the Amazon the next,” he writes. The impact of smallpox on New World populations is the dramatic example of the way the connections formed by shipping can influence the spread of microbes. Smallpox was only one of many microbes that spread along shipping routes of the 16th century.


Today, a radically mobile world has given infectious agents a global stage to act. Airplanes link populations in an immediate way, allowing microbes to transmit even more quickly. The immediacy of air travel means even microbes with very short latent periods spread effectively. So bugs lurking in seemingly sanitised places like the Hong Kong restaurant where Emhoff had her last dine-out can travel thousands of kilometres to her home in a matter of hours.

Wolfe believes factory farming of animals compounds the problem. His research on factory farming shows these farms are incubators for infectious agents. More than half of the livestock produced globally now originates in industrial farm settings. “Cramped and filthy conditions in factory farms contribute to antibiotic resistance, making it more difficult to treat human as well as animal diseases. Eight per cent of all antibiotics sold in 2009 were used on livestock and poultry,” he writes.

Wolfe remains optimist though. He sees hope in research that will help people consume animal protein without slaughtering animals. He also sees hope in efforts to understand what is crossing over from animals to humans and catch it early.

R Abhishek Kumar is a zoologist in Pune

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