Stopping the Next Plague

Hunting for viruses with Columbia's Simon Anthony

Many of his discoveries begin this way. His goal is to obtain sequences of virus genetic code, which subsequent steps will fill in. When in hand, Anthony will plug them into BLAST, an open-source database of DNA sequences. If the piece of code is not there, he has discovered another new virus.

The samples—blood, tissue, feces—arrive by mail every three months. Inside a nondescript cardboard box is a layer of dry ice and 500 plastic vials. He inventories each tube and places it into the large freezers, like giant Frigidaires, where they are kept at 80 degrees below zero Celsius. The lab has so many—it receives 10,000 a year for all the projects—some had to be moved to a spillover bank in the Bronx.

Because wild animals produce the majority of infectious agents, the project sends field veterinarians around the world to sample primates, rodents, and bats, which are released unharmed. Those animals are hugely abundant, live near humans, and are close relatives of ours, so viruses they carry can jump to us with relative ease. Most samples are shipped to Anthony.

These pieces of bush meat, confiscated at U.S. airports, were among those Anthony and his colleagues studied.
Courtesy PLOS
These pieces of bush meat, confiscated at U.S. airports, were among those Anthony and his colleagues studied.

Periodically, he travels to the Amazon or other hot spots to scope out animal populations for testing. But a sterile lab environment seems a more natural workplace for the London-born scientist, who wears a zebra-striped bow tie. As a colleague from one trip recalls, he was comically "out of his element" in the Peruvian Amazon. Anthony recounts the trip with dry humor. "I'd have my little field gear on, and they'd be like, 'Aren't you hot?'" he says, mimicking his friends. "They took the mickey out of me for wanting to look clean, even when it was sort of sweltering in this blipping forest. I'd be like: 'No. The vest goes with this outfit.'"

His colleague explains, "He wanted to look just right even though we were in a place where there was no looking good."

Although PREDICT was not the first effort to hunt viruses this way, it is the largest. The project is halfway through a five-year grant, and tens of thousands of samples have been collected. Mostly through Anthony's analysis, it has found 150 viruses. "It sounds great; it sounds really impressive," he says. "But it really is just a case of turning over the stones to see what's underneath." The majority of viruses are not harmful; Anthony has not identified anything immediately dangerous. Until he does, the researchers will not begin the costly and time-consuming steps to develop therapeutics. Their discoveries aside, these scientists have hardly left the driveway: By one expert's estimate, the 2,000 known to science represent two-tenths of one percent of all viruses.

The monkey serum (which came from macaques in Asia, though Anthony cannot specify where because of an agreement with a foreign government) has not yet revealed all its secrets. Although the radiological results show the presence of retrovirus's telltale enzyme, he has tested only for known sequences, which were not present. The samples will undergo powerful genetic tests to show the full constellation of what they contain. That preliminary result could actually mean the discovery of a new type. "I'm wondering whether or not we have a divergent retrovirus that is different enough that it is not being picked up," he says.

The same animals Anthony surveils in distant jungles are smuggled into New York's airports. In fact, to obtain some of his most important samples, he and his colleagues only needed to drive to Queens. When authorities at Kennedy International Airport seize illegal bush meat, they call the scientists to sample it before incineration. In 2010, he and his colleagues began to study bush meat confiscated at Kennedy and airports in Washington, Philadelphia, Houston, and Atlanta.

Bush meat is eaten around the world for subsistence and tradition. In some African cultures, the meat is believed to posses spiritual qualities and impart strength and courage. In parts of central and west Africa, bush meat accounts for as much as four-fifths of dietary protein. Unlike in Asia and South America, where primates are rarely consumed, in equatorial Africa, nonhuman primates are more common fare.

The most abundant types of bush meat are exactly what PREDICT is looking at: primates, rodents, and bats; and handling meat is an effective way of contracting viruses they carry. More to the point, it is widely accepted that HIV leaped to humans through the hunting, butchering, or consumption of chimpanzees in west Africa. Likewise, SARS was transmitted from civets, a wildcat prized as a delicacy in China.

According to records obtained by the Voice, authorities at Kennedy airport have seized 130 pounds of bush meat in the past five years. Items labeled as "NHP"—nonhuman primate—were among the things port officials could identify.

During that time, officials at Dulles International Airport seized 236 pounds of "smoked monkeys," "bats cooked whole for consumption," and rodents. More than 1,000 pounds were intercepted at the Elizabeth, New Jersey, seaport, along with smaller shipments at Connecticut's Bradley International Airport. Records show most shipments originate in a few countries: Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon among them.

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