March 26th, 2009
03:16 PM ET

Nathan Wolfe: Deep in the jungle, outwitting the next AIDS

Program Note: CNN’s award-winning Planet in Peril examines the conflict between growing populations and natural resources. Virus hunter Nathan Wolfe was featured in the 2008 Planet in Peril: Battle Lines and showed us how he intends to outwit pandemics by discovering new, deadly viruses when they first emerge.  Learn more about Nathan Wolfe's work here.


Virus hunter Nathan Wolfe has been called the "Indiana Jones of epidemiology." He's outwitting the next pandemic by staying two steps ahead: discovering new, deadly viruses when they first emerge - passing from animals to humans among poor subsistence hunters in central Africa - and stopping them before they infect millions of people.

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On Friday, the short powerful talk Nathan Wolfe delivered at this year's TED Conference (to an audience that included Bill Gates and Al Gore, among others) will be made available online. (Watch it here) In this pithy, passionate talk, he explains the issues he and his team grapple with, in their work outwitting the next AIDS.

He begins with a shot of Magic Johnson, explaining that while most of us think of AIDS as starting in the 1980s, it actually passed to humans from apes many decades earlier, and that there were likely 10,000+ cases even in the 1920s in Congo.

Wolfe asks people to consider how the world might have been different had we been paying attention then. He goes on to explain that most human diseases have animal origins, and that his work aims to find - and stop - these viruses early, right at the moment they cross into humans.

He shows photos and footage from the field, explains many of the (sometimes humorous) challenges they overcame (giving a lot of credit to the African members of his team), and also their results The team discovered several new viruses - including retroviruses; and documented viral leaps from animals to humans and amassed one of the world's largest blood sample collections.

He also delivers a very soulful soliloquy on the problem of bush meat, and how it cannot be blamed on the hunters, who are just trying to find something to eat.

Wolfe's presentation ends on an upbeat note, reflecting on the wonder and opportunity of this moment in time, when the vast majority of microbial life on this planet has yet to be discovered and we finally have the tools to make this happen.

Don't miss his presentation. You can see it starting Friday, March 27 at this link.

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Julie San Diego, CA

    While human-animal transmission may have begin the AIDS epidemic, the prevalence of AIDS in the modern world originated with people like Magic Johnson who have led lifestyles that freely spred this disease. Magic Johnson needs to own up to the fact that he is alleged to have had sex with over one thousand women in his lifetime.

    Instead of blaming it on the apes, lets focus on the human behaviors that are bringing a death sentence to millions of innocent women and children around the world who did not willingly participate in the risky activity that propagates the disease. Let's hold those who rape in Africa and other countries accountable. Men who participate in risky behaviors (anal sex, promiscuity) and then go on to transmit AIDS to women should receive a death sentence.

    If you are faithful to your partner and your partner is faithful to you, you aren't going to get AIDS. It's that simple.

    March 26, 2009 at 5:51 pm |
  2. Isabel

    We already lost so many wonderful people to AIDS. Excellent initiative!

    March 26, 2009 at 4:32 pm |
  3. earle,florida

    Thirty years ago,I was told that "AID's was a offspring (mutation)of cancer. Could it be that the integration of Africa over the milliniums has just leveled-off their immune (weakening) system to that of all conjoining continents? I liken it to the weakening of the wildlife animal species through-out the world ,with fewer animals,and less space, creating inbreeding,which eventually decimates the species survival instincts/skills,thus eventually dying off!

    March 26, 2009 at 4:11 pm |
  4. Rico Nanez

    i agree we do need people like him

    March 26, 2009 at 4:02 pm |
  5. Linda Sante'

    I won"t miss this presentation, it's amazing how we look at the epidemic devistation of these deseases in retrospect. They need to be nipped in the bud, so we can get things right. This promises to be another extraodinary genius gift of the coverage of an interesting topic by Anderson Cooper. Thx, Anderson Cooper and CNN.

    March 26, 2009 at 4:00 pm |
  6. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    Humanity needs more Nathan Wolfes-–

    March 26, 2009 at 3:43 pm |