Thursday, Apr. 21, 2011

Nathan Wolfe

Nathan Wolfe runs the CIA of infectious disease. The swashbuckling virologist is the founder and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), an innovative NGO that tracks emerging infectious diseases before they begin to kill humans. Nearly every deadly new virus of the past few decades — from Ebola to swine flu — began spreading in animals before it jumped to people. Hot spots like rural Africa, where wild animals and humans coexist and can swap microbes, are, in essence, the front lines of a new virological war. The next HIV could be brewing in an African market — and we wouldn't know until it was too late.

But Wolfe, 40, is trying to change that. GVFI has viral listening posts scattered throughout Central Africa, while it tracks viruses at remote sites in China, Malaysia and Laos. Wolfe — who is as much a 19th century explorer as a modern virologist — spends much of his time traveling in Africa, collecting blood samples and chasing down outbreaks. It's dirty, dangerous work — Wolfe has almost died of malaria — but it's our best hope to stop the next great epidemic before it starts.