A global adventure to stop the next pandemic before it strikes

Ask questions. Discover answers. Create change.

This is the process virologist Nathan Wolfe has followed since the beginning of his career in science — one that has taken him on a global adventure to track, study and eradicate epidemics and pandemics before they strike.

Wolfe, who is the 2015 London Health Research Day Lucille & Norton Wolf Health Research Lecture Series keynote speaker, hasn’t followed a typical career path. A few years ago he made the decision to leave a tenured position at the University of California, Los Angeles to create Metabiota, a data start-up company, and Global Viral, a non-profit organization.

He is also the Lorry I. Lokey Business Wire Consulting Professor in Human Biology at Stanford University in California.

Wolfe explained his entrepreneurial and innovative spirit comes from the desire to “follow-through” after answering scientifically interesting questions.

“After you’ve answered a question like ‘what is the nature of epidemics?’ you have the option of either putting the information you’ve discovered out there and hoping that someone else will take advantage of it, or you can take the new insight that you have and try to change the world yourself,” he said.

“Life is short — why not take a shot at going out and solving an important problem?”

And that is exactly what Wolfe has set out to do through his multiple ventures.

Through Metabiota, Wolfe and his team hope to address the problem of pandemics and epidemics in a way that has never been done before by building a global immune system through accumulating data and ground trooping around the world.

On the other hand, Wolfe and his team at Global Viral are asking some of the most fundamental questions in biology and using microorganisms as a means to finding answers. They are looking for the most divergent forms of life on earth using a range of basic scientific tools.

Wolfe said retrospectively it was clear he was going to do something scientific like this, adding that as a child he was always interested in the larger questions of life.

“I’ve always been interested in really difficult problems that others feel may be too hard to solve,” he said.

At this year’s London Health Research Day event, Wolfe will be giving a talk entitled, Before it Strikes: Viral Forecasting for Pandemic Prevention. With pandemics and epidemics currently at the forefront of public attention, it is a timely topic Wolfe hopes to help put into perspective for some people.

“Sadly, I do not think that people are very good at understanding and perceiving risk in a way that actually reflects the way it affects them,” he said.

Wolfe used the recent Ebola outbreak as an example to help clarify this argument. He explained that since we first heard about the outbreak through media channels, those who study pandemics and epidemics never thought it would become a global disaster, even though the average person may have thought there was a chance it would spread worldwide.

“I really don’t think evolution shaped our brains in such a way that permits us to understand the real implications of the various risks that we face,” he said. “On an individual level, I think that what people really need is to be better educated in the nature of probabilities and risk, and better informed about these things on a day-to-day basis.”

If society had a better way to articulate the nature of the particular risks that different populations were facing, Wolfe thinks the average citizen would be able to approach these risks with a level head.

He added that the lack of appropriate human behaviour and understanding could often be a worse enemy than the agent itself.

Even though Wolfe’s talk on April 1 will revolve around epidemics and pandemics, the “virus hunter” also has some advice for graduate students interested in pursuing a career similar to his own.

While he doesn’t think there is a recipe for success, Wolfe believes it comes down to a combination of being interested in what you’re pursuing, making sure you have an unusual approach, and being persistent and willing to pivot a little bit.

“I just always listened to myself and what I was interested in,” he said. “It just makes life a million times easier when you are honest with yourself about what you want to do.”