Book Review: The Viral Storm

Book Title: The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age (Times Books 2011)
Book Author: Nathan Wolfe
Reviewer: Kathleen Danskin, GMU M.S. in Biodefense Program

At first glance, the title of this book may bring to mind alarmist doomsday scenarios of a future filled with unstoppable global pandemics. However, the “new pandemic age” that Nathan Wolfe describes is instead one in which humans can anticipate pandemics and intervene in the early stages to prevent disaster. While the book does rely on a few of the standard ominous vignettes featuring H5N1, SARS, or bioterrorism to create a sense of fear and urgency, the overall message is one of optimism and confidence that these scenarios are not inevitable.

The book is divided into three sections, with the first two parts describing the long and complicated history between humans and microbes, and what the future may hold for that relationship. A primatologist by training, Wolfe begins his account eight million years ago with the last common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos. This common ancestor learned to hunt, greatly increasing its exposure to new microbes through contact with the tissues and fluids of its prey. Over time primate species diverged, and the ancestors of humans left the forests in favor of the savanna.  This group had less contact with new microbes both because the savanna is a less biodiverse habitat and because they learned to cook their meat.  Additionally, they underwent a process Wolfe terms “microbial cleansing” in which a population bottleneck simultaneously decreases the genetic diversity of a group and the diversity of its associated microbiota. Thus, although humans and apes are close genetic relatives, their microbiota differ substantially, creating the potential for disease causing microbes to transfer between them. Certain human practices, such as building roads into African forests and consuming bushmeat, bring humans into close contact with apes and their microbes, increasing the probability of such transfers. The consequences of these practices are magnified in today’s world by global transportation networks, dense populations, and medical technologies such as injections, blood transfusions, and organ transplants.

While the first two thirds of the book are interesting, the final section is the most memorable and thought provoking. Here Wolfe describes his vision of a “global immune system” that can recognize and prevent pandemics. His organization, Global Viral Forecasting (http://www.gvfi.org/index.php), aims to combine epidemiology with information and communication technology to monitor “viral chatter”. Analogous to intelligence chatter, he believes viral chatter should enable us to monitor the transmission of microbes from animals to humans, to chart and follow microbes already in humans that might cause disease, and to detect the next pandemic before it happens.

Wolfe lays out a wide array of approaches and technologies that can be combined to monitor viral chatter. These range from monitoring animal die-offs and human sentinel populations, such as hunters, airline attendants, and those receiving regular blood transfusions, to GIS maps with multiples layers of information to track outbreaks, to improved techniques for sample collection and laboratory analysis in isolated rural areas. He enthusiastically describes current efforts to leverage existing mobile technology by using cell phones to transmit information from rural clinics to central hospitals, and using call patterns, Google searches, Twitter, and online social media to crowdsource outbreak detection and monitoring.

Wolfe acknowledges that his ‘global immune system’ is not yet a reality, but he does not discuss the struggles and challenges that stand in the way of realizing this goal, such as concerns over the reliability and specificity of crowdsourced data. This book is not intended to be an evenhanded, scientific discussion of the merits of his approach to predicting and preventing pandemics; it is instead an explanation of where the next pandemic is likely to come from and a survey of several intriguing new technologies that may help us to prepare. The book is written in an accessible way for a non-scientific audience, with a writing style that is clear and readable. Those without any background in evolutionary science or microbiology should find it straightforward and informative. Those with more extensive backgrounds in biology may find themselves skimming through the first two sections, but the final section should still be an interesting read for anyone who wants a high-level overview of some interesting trends in the field of biosurveillance.

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