With his close-cropped hair and three-day stubble, Nathan Wolfe looks every bit the warrior on the front line of a crucial battle. But Wolfe isn’t fighting a conventional war against other human beings. He is fighting to save the human race, seeking to discover and neutralize deadly viruses before they blossom into an epidemic. Wolfe, a Stanford biologist, is director of Global Viral Forecasting, an organization that identifies infectious diseases before they become full-blown pandemics. He is also the author of an eye-opening book, The Viral Storm, an account of the struggle to control the spread of lethal viruses.

Wolfe’s book is startling in its revelations of just how vulnerable we are to infectious outbreaks. He attributes our susceptibility to viruses to our early ancestors who chose to consume bacteria-laden animal flesh over plant life. More recently, once-contained diseases were able to spread from the moment Columbus and other explorers brought animals, insects and rodents from the Old World to the New, and vice versa. Modern air travel and the global trade of livestock and crops have accelerated the spread of viruses today.

What makes The Viral Storm more alarming is information on just how resourceful and adaptable disease-carrying microbes can be. They must find and attach themselves to a host—animal or human—to survive, then figure out a way to spread, most often through coughing, sneezing, skin-to-skin contact or blood transmission. And these microbes are resilient, constantly mutating to survive attacks from antibiotics and other enemies.

Fortunately, Wolfe is among a number of scientists who travel the globe trying to identify new viruses and prevent their spread. He shares his experiences and discoveries in the jungles of Africa and the South American rainforests as he hunts for the origins of new deadly diseases, and identifies new technologies being employed to stop future outbreaks. The Viral Storm will scare you, educate you and leave you with a sense of hope that science and public policy can improve world health and someday eliminate epidemics altogether.

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