Stopping the Next Plague

Hunting for viruses with Columbia's Simon Anthony

Later, he would find that the throat swabs held a bounty of viruses: an adenovirus, a form of which can cause pneumonia in people; a new enterovirus, related to the human kind, a type of which causes polio; and five kinds of polyomaviruses, at least three of which are brand new.

And as is often the case, he found mysterious genetic sequences—"dark matter"—that don't fit with any known life-form. About a third of the genetic codes he finds are dark matter, unidentifiable shadows at the edge of scientific knowledge. "It may be rubbish; it may be bacteria," he says. "It could be anything."

On a recent afternoon, Anthony sits at a small table in the atrium at Lincoln Center. On weekends, he makes the 100-block trek from his apartment, by the lab, to work here. The former baritone likes being near the Metropolitan Opera, which he attends when he can. With his coffee and laptop, he could be any New Yorker or English tourist. Instead, he is a guy whose job is to know what conspiracy nature has in the works. And he might be the first person to know when it has been unleashed.

Christopher Farber
More than 500 novel viruses have been discovered in Columbia University’s labs. The lab receives samples—about 10,000 annually—of blood, tissue, and feces that arrive by mail every three months.
Christopher Farber
More than 500 novel viruses have been discovered in Columbia University’s labs. The lab receives samples—about 10,000 annually—of blood, tissue, and feces that arrive by mail every three months.

He explains his most recent bit of spying on the natural world. It began last fall when dead harbor seal pups began washing ashore in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Over four months, 160 seals, many of them juveniles, inexplicably died. Surfers bumped into their bloated carcasses, which tossed among the waves and littered foggy beaches. The animals had not expired due to injury or malnutrition, common causes in the wild. They had succumbed to severe pneumonia brought on by a respiratory infection that left lesions on their trunks and flippers.

Local authorities sent Anthony lung tissue from five infected seals, and the detective set to work. He tested for a wide range of pathogens and within two days had found a suspect: an unknown influenza subtype. By the end of the week, he had compared its genome to that of other viruses, and found that it is closely related to a flu that infects the intestinal tract of ducks. Somehow the virus jumped hosts, probably along the shore where the animals' habitats overlap.

The resulting paper was published in the journal mBio in July. A couple of months earlier, the U.S. government had asked scientists to withhold research about dangerous mutations in bird flu because of security reasons. Major news organizations picked up the study (as did the The Onion, which ran a fake man-on-the-street interview series: "Aw, jeez, now you tell me. I just picked up a couple of seal steaks at the Price Chopper," lamented Barbara Suarez).

Anthony explained the subtle threat to the world. To invade cells, viruses use receptors, like little doors. This virus, now known as seal H3N8, had acquired a key to seal cells, when before it had only keys to bird cells. After jumping into seals, it adapted to jump between them. "Because of that, there's every likelihood that this virus can therefore infect other mammals, too," he says. Without further study, no one knows whether seal H3N8 might leap to people, much less if it could be as deadly as H1N1, a flu strain that killed 10,000 people in six months during 2009.

The jump to mammals from birds is bigger than a jump between two mammal species. In other words, the virus had already made the difficult initial leap. Anthony can't be certain seal H3N8 is capable of infecting humans, but it has a stronger chance now that it has migrated to one mammal. "You have to imagine the possibility is certainly there," he says.

At times, the reaction to his discoveries and those of others can be overblown, he says, citing undue fear that we are "one or two mutations away from a pandemic." If that were true, "there would be outbreaks every other day, and as a species we would have a hard time existing," he says. Until science has mapped the universe of pathogens, no one can say precisely what reaction is appropriate. We know only that every landing airplane, every infected seal, poses some risk. "I think it is also important to emphasize that it is very unlikely that seal flu will either jump into people or cause disease simply because these events are so rare," he says. "What is important about this study is that it teaches us about how viruses emerge in new mammalian hosts."

On this rainy day, he shares a table with an aging woman in the packed atrium. She eavesdrops as he speaks about how pathogen discovery is done and the need for scientists to continue the shotgun approach. As she stands up to leave, she mentions her amazement at how far science has come. It was the second time in weeks that a stranger in the atrium said something like that. He has gotten such comments many times.

Just the other day, he was opening a bank account at a Chase on Ninth Avenue in midtown. The banker offhandedly asked, "What do you do?" When he told her, she wrote her phone number on a piece of paper, handed it to him, and said: "Give me a call when you find something serious. I want to be the first to know."

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