Friday, March 23, 2012


I don’t remember where online I heard of the book, The Viral Storm: The Dawn of A New Pandemic Age, by Nathan Wolfe, but wherever I did, I saw it and thought, “I want to read that.”

It belongs to a whole subset of books that I want to have read, more than that I want to read, because while the information in them is interesting to know, I have the attention span of a flea. And while The Viral Storm is written for a popular audience, it’s not an easy read. It took me over a month to slog through it.

It was a worthwhile read. I was amused to see that one of the reviews on Amazon contained this line: “While reading the first 100 pages or so I was pretty sure I picked up a book about primate behavior instead of viruses.” The book is about pandemics, what they are and how they spread. Primate behavior, according to the author, has a lot to do with how humans acquire viruses from the animal world and how we spread them. When the first apes decided to add meat to their diet, they exposed themselves to microbes in the blood of their prey. Chimpanzees and bonobos hunt meat, particularly monkeys. It is likely our last common ancestor did,  too.

Why is that relevant to pandemics?

Hunting, with all of its messy, bloody activity provides everything infectious agents require to move from one species to another. The minor skirmishes our early ancestors had with other species probably resulted in minor cuts, scratches and bites - insignificant compared to the intense exposure of one species to another that is a direct result of hunting and butchering.
The chimpanzees who were devouring their feast of red colobus monkey in the Kibale forest that day were an instant, visual example of blurring the lines between species. The manner in which they were ingesting and spreading fresh blood and organs was creating the ideal environment for any infectious agent present in the monkeys to spread to the chimpanzees. (Kindle edition, location 558-571)

Wolfe spends the bulk of his book on the human behaviors that make pandemics possible: advances in domestication of animals, in travel, and in medicine. Living in proximity to livestock exposes us to their diseases. The rapidity of airplane travel means a traveler can pick up a disease in one place and spread it in another, sometimes before even showing symptoms. The medical advances that save lives, like blood transfusions and organ transplants, also open up a direct route for microbes to get from one body to another.

Wolfe also discusses new ways of tracking pandemics. Borrowing from a term used by intelligence communities, he talks about listening to “viral chatter”, reports of low level incidences of viral infection that need watching. One of his projects is getting hunters of bushmeat to use baseball-card-sized sampling papers to take samples of blood from the meat they hunt and drop it off in easily located collection spots. This allows researchers to check for microbes that may be making their way from the meat into human populations.

Wolfe also cites a 2009 Google study that shows that search patterns of individuals “provide a sense of what individuals are becoming infected with”. 

With the vast stores of search data kept by Google and the US influenza surveillance data collected by the CDC, the team was able to calibrate their system to determine the key search words that sick people or their caregivers used to indicate the presence of illness. The team used searches on words related to influenza and its symptoms and remedies to establish a system that accurately tracked the influenza statistics generated by the CDC. In fact, they did better. Since Google search data is available immediately . . . Google was able to beat the CDC in providing accurate influenza trends before the traditional surveillance system. (Kindle edition locations 2768-2764)

Okay that’s scary, and not just in the “I could get sick and die” sense of scary, but it is also impressive.

So read the book. It’s well worth the time.

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