Virology and technology meet as Nathan Wolfe took the stage on the second day of DLD15. The American virologist, Wolfe, has been called a “virus explorer”. His aim is to predict the virus before it kills. And his start-up Metabiota offers both governmental and corporate services for biological threat evaluation and management.
“When trying to understand the emergence of novel diseases, we have to understand that there have been some really profound changes over the last hundred years,” Wolfe began his ten-minute talk. Connectivity has reached unprecedented levels, not least because of air traffic. Humans moving mean they can not only pass viruses on to each other, but also that human populations are constantly moving agents around the world that can affect and infect other populations.
At Metabiota, data mining plays a central role. It is only after existing data on a certain threat has been gathered and analyzed, that Wolfe's team will go out to conduct field research. “We think about this a little like swiss cheese. Existing data is the cheese and we’re filling up the holes.” This “plugging of holes” is what Wolfe refers to as data directive disease surveillance. After the data has been gathered, analyzed, and modelled it can be used to predict outbreaks, and recommendations can consequently be made.
The Virus Quest
Alexander Kelkulé, professor at Martin Luther University in Halle took over the floor next to explain what he describes as “the virus quest”. Within ten minutes, he outlined what makes viruses such a dangerous enemy, why we are poorly equipped to fight them, and how we could become a better battler. His talk drew a lot on lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak.
Around half of all people who became infected with Ebola during the ongoing West African epidemic have died. This devastating chain of death began with one single little boy, an infant almost, living in an isolated village. Before this baby died, he had infected his mother, his sister and his grandmother. There have been many Ebola outbreaks in West Africa before. Generally they flared up and then burned out almost just as fast, remaining confined to a single village. But human greed and subsequent mining of natural resources means that West Africa too has become more interconnected. This has contributed to the spread of this strand of the disease. At the moment, the Ebola death toll is almost 8,000.
“For me, it is fascinating to see how such a tiny bug can break the crown of creation,” Kelkulé said. For West Africans, Ebola is not just a disease pointing towards death. The virus also leads to social isolation, to riots, and even economic breakdown in a country.
The simplicity of viruses, Kelkulé explained, is also the key to their success. A virus is incredibly fast in multiplying, very flexible (Ebola for instance can affect almost every organ in the human body and adapt to new animals hosts very quickly), and extremely redundant. Bottom line is, more often than not a deadly virus will kill its host.
With the current outbreak, international relief organization were very slow to respond, Kelkulé said. Buraucracy impeded progress. And efforts were very vulnerable - as fear of the virus spread faster eben than the virus itself, meaning volunteers were scarce.
That fear can be overcome through understanding. Kelkulé therefore finished his talk by inviting all participants to join him in creating a virus response that is - like virused themselves - fast, resilient and redundant.
During the Q&A session one participant asked how effective treatments can actually be considering the lethality of Ebola. Kelkulé said with the current outbreak proper treatments could not be rolled out in Africa. As people knew no adequate treatment was available to them in the health centres, they often chose to stay at home, placing others at risk of infection, rather than die in isolation at the centre. However, treatments do show significant success, Kelkulé said. Wolfe added that treatments can also be significantly improved if researchers have proper backing. To illustrate this point, he gave the example of HIV. Back in the 1970s, HIV was thought of similarly to Ebola - whereas now it is seen as a chronic illness.
Picking up on the point of funding, Kelkulé lamented the fact that as soon as an outbreak is over, funding for research tends to stop. “I wish that mindset would change,” said the professor. Wolfe pointed out the American government recently allocated several billion dollars to fighting new diseases. Europe has not followed suite.
Europe should also help in the battle against new viruses, Kelkuné said. For one, many of the countries in which outbreaks originate are former European colonies. Secondly, “it is in our own interest to help because these countries are closer today than ever before,” Kelkuné finished.